Earthquake in China: Rescuers battle sub-zero temperatures as powerful quake kills more than 100

Hong Kong

An earthquake in northwestern China killed at least 118 people and injured hundreds, state media reported Tuesday, as rescue teams scrambled to reach survivors in sub-zero temperatures.

China’s worst earthquake in nearly a decade rocked Zhishan County in Gansu province on Monday night, damaging homes and roads. Rescuers rushed to search for those trapped under the rubble, while residents rushed outside after huddling overnight in the bitter winter cold.

The Tuesday morning quake killed 105 people, injured 397 and damaged more than 4,700 homes in Gansu, provincial officials told a news conference.

In neighboring Qinghai province, 13 people had died and 182 were injured, and 20 were still missing as of midday, local officials said.

The quake struck shortly before midnight while many were sleeping in their homes. It had a magnitude of 5.9 at a shallow depth of more than 6 miles, according to the US Geological Survey. The China Earthquake Network Center (CENC) gave a slightly higher reading of 6.2.

The quake was located near the border between Gansu and Qinghai, a mountain range on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The quake was followed by nine aftershocks of magnitude 3 and above as of morning, CENC said.

Zhang Hongxiang/AP

On December 19, 2023, rescuers carry out a collapsed village house in Haidong City, Qinghai Province.

The initial tremor lasted nearly 20 seconds and was felt 102 kilometers (63 miles) away in the provincial capital of Lanzhou, CCTV said.

University students in Lanzhou shared photos on the social networking site Weibo of the crowd outside their dormitories.

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A Lanzhou University student said she first went to hide in the bathroom with her roommates before running down 12 floors amid violent tremors when the quake struck.

“I have never felt such a strong tremor,” he wrote Weibo post. “Barefoot in a down jacket, long underwear and sandals outside, the temperature is below -10 degrees Celsius, (I’m) shivering with everyone.”

Some village houses in Gansu and Kingai collapsed into rubble as firefighters pulled survivors out of the rubble in the dark, CCTV footage showed.

The quake has cut off water and electricity and mobile signals in some areas, complicating rescue efforts.

According to provincial officials, at least 4,000 firefighters, police officers and soldiers have been sent to the disaster zone in Gansu along with thousands of tents, folding beds, quilts and portable fire pits.

Jia Shengyang/VCG/Getty Images

Village houses in Jishishan County, Gansu Province were severely damaged in the earthquake.

In the heart of Jixishan, a district of about 260,000 people, many fled their homes to seek safety in open areas. Videos and pictures State media and social media showed families huddled together in thick blankets in the public square.

A villager in Jishishan said he didn’t have time to put on extra clothes and ran out barefoot, past broken bricks and glass.

“There was a loud ‘boom’ and the wall on the second floor collapsed. (I was) almost hit and trapped inside,” said the villager. Jiupai told the newsA news site affiliated with the state-run Songjiang Daily.

Authorities set up tents at a temporary resettlement site in a square in Dahejia, a hard-hit town in Jishishan County, CCTV reported.

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According to CCTV, the lowest overnight temperature in Jishan was -14 degrees Celsius or 6.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Below-freezing temperatures pose a “huge challenge” to rescue efforts, rescue expert Wang Duo told the state-run China Newsweek. The first 72 hours are generally considered the “golden period” for recovery, but that precious window of time was shortened in this case because of the biting cold, Wang said.

Large parts of China, including northwestern China, have been ravaged by a sudden cold snap in recent days, with temperatures in some northern regions dropping to record lows.

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Rescuers search a collapsed house for survivors in Zhishan County, Gansu Province on December 19, 2023.

China’s Xi Jinping on Tuesday urged authorities to “make every effort” to search for survivors and treat the injured, according to Xinhua, noting that the disaster occurred in a high-altitude area with cold weather.

China’s Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Emergency Management have allocated 200 million yuan ($28 million) in natural disaster relief funds to the two earthquake-hit provinces, Xinhua reported.

China is no stranger to powerful earthquakes, especially in the southwest of the country where the Eurasian tectonic plate meets the Indian plate, a dramatic collision that creates the mighty Himalayas and the vast Tibetan Plateau.

The quake was the worst to hit China in nearly a decade, according to publicly available reports, since an earthquake in the southwestern province of Yunnan killed about 600 people in 2014.

Yunnan’s neighboring province of Sichuan experienced a magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2008. Killed around 90,000 people.

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