Death toll in latest Sichuan earthquake climbs to 208

Rescuers struggle to get supplies to villages where roads are congested by aid trucks and obstructed by landslides

Rescue workers struggled along narrow roads, many of them blocked by landslides, to reach villages devastated by a powerful earthquake in rural southwestern China at the weekend, as the death toll climbed to 208 with thousands of serious injuries.

Saturday's quake – measured by China's earthquake administration at magnitude 7.0 and by the US Geological Survey at 6.6 – had its epicentre in Lushan county, near the city of Ya'an, where the Sichuan plain meets foothills that eventually rise to the Tibetan plateau. It sits atop the Longmenshan fault, where the Wenchuan earthquake almost five years ago killed over 90,000 people.

"It has been very challenging to get relief supplies in because the roads into the disaster area are very congested with trucks carrying relief supplies. Relief is getting through but much more slowly than we would like to see," said Francis Markus, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

"It's obviously difficult for people who have been through this disaster to have to spend a day without supplies, but it's quite a challenging situation," said Mr Markus.

Earthquake response
This earthquake was less powerful than the 2008 quake and also mostly affected rural areas. It struck at 8am on Saturday, when most schools and offices were closed, and many people in farming communities were out in the fields.


China’s earthquake response has become a well-drilled machine since the 2008 earthquake and the Beijing government was quick to mobilise troops and other rescue workers.

In all, Beijing has mobilised 18,000 soldiers and officers from the different wings of China’s military, including the army, the armed police and the paramilitary reserves, and so far 10,000 have reached areas that were worst hit, the Chengdu Military Area Command (MAC) said in a statement.

In some parts of badly hit Baoxing county, more than 60 per cent of buildings had suffered damage and roads to towns in the affected area were wrecked by landslides.

“There are still some pockets that rescuers are working to get into but gradually the picture is becoming clearer. There are some areas where all the houses were destroyed. Our team in Longmen saw places where all the houses were destroyed but there were no deaths,” said Mr Markus.

In some ways, the damage was less devastating than it could have been because many of the houses which collapsed were simple rural dwellings with timber construction. This means people are more likely to be injured by falling debris than killed by large steel superstructures.

Cai Jing, a senior Sichuan official said the quake had caused obstructions to most of the roads in the area."We advise against private rescue trips," said Mr Cai.

An official with the Sichuan traffic police said: “Only vehicles of medical and rescue professionals are now allowed to take the roads to quake-hit areas. Even military and cargo transportation are being stopped.”

Rescue workers brought excavators and other heavy machinery as well as tents, blankets and other emergency supplies. Two soldiers were killed after their vehicle slid off a road and rolled down a cliff.

Premier Li Keqiang visited the epicentre of the quake in Lushan county on Saturday and yesterday he visited an intensive care unit, reminiscent of his predecessor Wen Jiabao's hands-on approach during the Wenchuan quake five years ago.

Seriously injured
"Be relaxed and relieved. Doctors here will make their utmost efforts to help you recover as soon as possible," Mr Li told Yue Anhong, a local resident who was buried under rubble and seriously injured.

In one of the more surreal moments of the domestic coverage of the disaster, a reporter who had been en route to her wedding when the quake struck covered the event wearing her wedding gown.

Ya’an city and surrounding administrative region has a population of 1.53 million and is known as the hometown of the giant panda, as well as a centre of tea culture in China. It is about 140 kilometres away from Chengdu.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing