BEIJING – Twin earthquakes and a spate of aftershocks struck southwest China on Friday, toppling thousands of houses and sending boulders cascading across roads.
At least 80 people were killed and hundreds injured in the remote mountainous area, and more than 100,000 residents were evacuated.
Damage was preventing rescuers from reaching outlying towns, and communications were disrupted after the midday quakes hit along the borders of Guizhou and Yunnan provinces, a region of small farms and mines where some of China’s poorest people live.
The first magnitude-5.6 quake struck just before 11:30 a.m. and was followed by an equally strong quake shortly after noon, joined by dozens of aftershocks. Though of moderate strength, the quakes were shallow, which often causes more damage.
Hardest hit was Yiliang County, where all but one of the deaths occurred, according to the Yunnan provincial government’s official website. An additional 730 people in the area were injured, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said. Yiliang’s high population density, flimsy building construction and landslide-prone hillsides were blamed for the relatively high death toll.
China Central Television showed roads littered with boulders and pillars of dust rising over hilltops from the landslides. One image taken just as one quake struck showed people running out of a supermarket.
Other footage showed several hundred people crowding into a school athletic field in Yiliang’s county seat, a sizable city spread along a river in a valley, as well as soldiers carrying injured people and rescue materials.
Though quakes occur in the area frequently, buildings in rural areas and China’s fast-growing smaller cities and towns are often constructed poorly. A magnitude-7.9 quake that hit Sichuan province, just north of Yunnan, in 2008 killed nearly 90,000 people, with many of the deaths blamed on poorly built structures, including schools.
Friday’s quakes destroyed 6,650 homes across several counties and townships, Xinhua said. The Yunnan seismology bureau said more than 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes. All told, 700,000 people had their lives disrupted by the quake, Xinhua said.
In Luozehe, a town in Yiliang near a zinc mine, residents and state media said boulders hurtled off hillsides and houses collapsed.
It is scary. My brother was killed by falling rocks. The aftershocks struck again and again. We are so afraid, Xinhua quoted miner Peng Zhuwen as saying.
Friday’s quakes were relatively shallow, about six miles deep, creating an intense shaking even at a lower magnitude.
By comparison, the magnitude-7.6 quake in Costa Rica this week was 25 miles below the surface, a fact that, combined with strict building codes, kept damage and deaths to a minimum.