BEIJING // A strong earthquake that shook an arid, hilly farming area in north-west China caused landslides and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes yesterday, killing at least 75 people and injuring more than 400, the government said.
The quake near the city of Dingxi in Gansu province toppled brick walls and telephone lines, shattered mud-and-tile-roofed houses and sent cascades of dirt and rock down hillsides that blocked roads and slowed rescue efforts by crews trying to reach remote areas.
Hospitals set up aid stations in car parks to accommodate large numbers of injured, while hundreds of the paramilitary People's Armed Police fanned out to search for victims in the region of terraced farmlands, about 1,200 kilometres west of Beijing.
"I was thrown off the couch while watching television," a Dingxi resident told the official People's Daily newspaper website. "It was only when I was on the ground that I realised it was an earthquake and when I couldn't reach my daughter on the phone I began to be frightened," said the man.
In addition to the 75 confirmed dead, there were 14 people missing and 459 injured, the central government's China Earthquake Administration said.
Damage was worst in Min county in Dingxi's rural southern portion, where scores of homes were damaged and telephone and electricity services knocked out, according to Dingxi's mayor, Tang Xiaoming. All but three of the deaths, all the missing, and most of the injured were in Min, possibly a result of shoddy building construction.
Residents said the tremor lasted about a minute, but was not strong enough to cause major damage in urban areas, where buildings are more solidly built.
"You could see the chandeliers wobble and the windows vibrating and making noise, but there aren't any cracks in the walls. Shop assistants all poured out on to the streets when the shaking began," said a front-desk clerk at the Wuyang Hotel in the Zhang County seat about 40km from the epicentre.
Tremors were felt in the provincial capital of Lanzhou, 177km north, and Xi'an, 400km to the east.
The government's earthquake-monitoring centre said the initial quake at 7.45am was magnitude 6.6 and subsequent tremors included a magnitude 5.6.
The quake was shallow, which can be more destructive. The centre said it struck about 20km beneath the surface, while the Gansu provincial earthquake administration said it was only 6km deep. The US Geological Survey measured the magnitude of the initial quake at 5.9 at a depth of 10km.
Initial measurements of an earthquake can vary widely, especially if different monitoring equipment is used.
Su Wei, leader of a 120-member rescue team from the People's Armed Police, told CCTV that they were on their way to the epicentre, but progress was being slowed by mud and rock slides blocking the road.
The Chinese Red Cross said it was shipping 200 tents, 1,000 sets of household items and 2,000 jackets to the area and sending teams from Lanzhou and Beijing to help with relief work and assess further needs.
Heavy rain is expected in the area later in the week, raising the need for shelter and increasing the chance of further landslides.
Almost 2,000 homes were either destroyed or heavily damaged, with thousands more suffering partial damage, according to the Dingxi government website. It said 14,066 households were without power and five county and township roads had been cut.
Gansu province, a region of mountains, desert and pastureland with a population of 26 million, is one of China's more lightly populated provinces, although the Dingxi area has a greater concentration of farms in rolling hills terraced for crops and fruit trees. Dingxi has a total population of about 2.7 million.
China's worst earthquake in recent years measured 7.9 and struck the south-west province of Sichuan in 2008, leaving 90,000 people dead or missing.