A series of strong earthquakes struck a mountainous Tibetan area of western China on Wednesday, killing at least 400 people and injuring more than 10,000 as houses made of mud and wood collapsed, officials said. Many more people were trapped, and the toll was expected to rise.
The largest quake was recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey as magnitude 6.9. In the aftermath, panicked people, many bleeding from their wounds, flooded the streets of a Qinghai province township where most of the homes had been flattened. Students were reportedly buried inside several damaged schools.
Paramilitary police used shovels to dig through the rubble in the town, footage on state television showed. Officials said excavators were not available. Crews worked to repair the damaged road to the nearest airport and clear the way for equipment and rescue teams. Hospitals were overwhelmed, many lacking even the most basic supplies, and doctors were in short supply.
By nightfall, the airport was operating with emergency power and receiving relief flights carrying medical workers and supplies, state media reported.
Downed phone lines, strong winds and frequent aftershocks hindered rescue efforts, said Wu Yong, commander of the local army garrison, who said the death toll “may rise further as lots of houses collapsed.”
With many people forced outside, the provincial government said it was rushing 5,000 tents and 100,000 coats and blankets to the mountainous region, with an altitude of around 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) where night time temperatures plunge below freezing.
Workers were racing to release water from a reservoir in the disaster area where a crack had formed after the quake to prevent a flood, according to the China Earthquake Administration.
The Wednesday quake, which struck at 7:49 a.m. local time (2349 GMT, 7:49 p.m. EDT), was centered on Yushu county, in the southern part of Qinghai, near Tibet, with a population of about 100,000, mostly herders and farmers.