A rapid series of strong earthquakes hit a mountainous and impoverished area of China’s Qinghai province early Wednesday, killing 589 people, state-run media said, quoting local quake relief headquarters.
At least 10,000 others were injured, the Xinhua news agency reported, and many victims, including school children, were buried under debris. Rescuers were struggling to clear debris with their hands and save those trapped below.
A 6.9-magnitude earthquake, as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey, struck at 7:49 a.m. local time (7:49 p.m. ET Tuesday), when many citizens were still at home and schools were beginning the day. The USGS also recorded several strong aftershocks — one of magnitude 5.8 — all within hours of the initial quake.
The epicenter was in remote and rugged terrain, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Qamdo, Tibet. Qinghai borders the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xingjiang and the provinces of Gansu and Sichuan.
Karsum Nyima, deputy director of news at local Yushu TV, told Xinhua that most of the houses in the area were made of wood with earthen walls. He said some had come tumbling down, including a Buddhist pagoda in a park.
The temblors “have toppled houses, temples, gas stations and electric poles, triggered landslides, damaged roads, cut power supplies and disrupted telecommunications,” Xinhua said. “A reservoir was also cracked, where workers are trying to prevent the outflow of water.”
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ordered local authorities to “go all out to save the disaster-stricken people,” Xinhua said. Vice Premier Hui Liangyu was dispatched to the region.
About 700 soldiers were working to clear rubble and rescue buried quake victims, according to Xinhua. More than 5,000 others, including soldiers and medical workers, were sent to the area, the Qinghai provincial government told reporters in a news conference, Xinhua said.
About 1,000 people have been pulled out alive, China’s state-run CCTV reported more than 12 hours after the earthquake. They were taken to one of several locations, chosen based on low probability of aftershocks.
The news agency reported panic on the streets as crews launched rescue efforts in the rubble of collapsed buildings.
“We have to mainly rely on our hands to clear away the debris as we have no large excavating machines,” police officer Shi Huajie said. “We have no medical equipment, either.”