HONG KONG—Authorities in Beijing have declared a top-level emergency after a Tibetan region of western China was hit by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, killing hundreds and injuring thousands, according to early reports.
"We dug ourselves out," said an employee at an orphanage in the Yushu Tibetan region of Qinghai province, where the quake hit.
"We have no shelter, but have to sit on the grass in the open area, and we have no food and no water," said the employee, identified as A Zhou.
He said that the girls' dormitory belonging to a local school had collapsed and that those who were buried under the rubble had little chance of survival.
"There were many girls living in the dormitory which has collapsed," A Zhou said. "They are all gone."
A local rescue worker confirmed that the damage to buildings was severe and widespread.
"The rescue operation is under way," said the firefighter from his mobile phone at the scene.
"Many residential buildings have collapsed," he said. "I don’t have the exact number of casualties."
"You can spot dead people from every collapsed house. All buildings were damaged," he added.
Official media described scenes of panic, as injured people, many bleeding from the head, tried to seek help.
He confirmed that schools had also collapsed with students inside, as they did in the devastating Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.
"Many students are buried under the debris due to the collapse of a vocational school," the official, identified as Zhuo Haixia of Qinghai province's Yushu [in Tibetan, Yulshul] Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, said.
"A large crack has appeared in the wall of the Yushu Hotel, and part of a government office building also collapsed," he said.
No alerts issued
Local residents said they felt the first tremor early on Wednesday morning local time.
"A tremor was felt at 5:20 a.m.," one Tibetan resident of Yushu said. "It was a small shake, and by 8:00 a.m. a strong quake had struck and leveled almost all buildings," he said.
"Those who felt the 5:20 a.m. tremor came out of their buildings, but those who didn’t feel the pre-shock stayed inside the buildings, which later collapsed."
Quake victim A Zhou said he felt an earlier tremor too.
"I did feel the tremor at 5:20 a.m., but I have no idea if the local earthquake monitoring department ever detected the tremor," he said.
"Even if they did, they didn’t issue any alert."
Residents of Zhongda township said their area had sustained heavy casualties.
"Most buildings were flattened, and many people were killed," a Tibetan resident said. "We are from a production team of Zhongda, and we have several dozen casualties. We are now setting up some make-shift tents as shelters."
Nearby Chenduo [in Tibetan, Tridu] county suffered less damage, however.
According to a Tibetan schoolteacher, many of the local schoolchildren had escaped serious harm.
"We were lucky that school buildings didn’t collapse and that our students are safe," she said.
"Parents have been notified to take their children home. But some residential buildings collapsed ... I have seen dozens of collapsed buildings, and those that still stand have cracks," she added.
"We are now staying in tents."
A Tibetan resident of the prefectural government seat Gyegu [in Chinese, Jiegu] said that he was sleeping when he felt a slight shake, but didn't pay much attention because there had been many similar tremors in the past. Some of the local residents returned to sleep.
"Then later there was another slight shake, and many of us woke up and ran out of our homes without wearing shoes. Some did not wear clothes at all," he said.
"At that time, all we could see in front of us were collapsed walls and houses. Everyone ran to spacious places and up to the mountains," the resident said, adding that he was calling from the town threshing field.
The man said he had heard that several other areas of the township had been severely affected by the quake, including nearby Shehuang and Shetong.
"A lot of people have been killed and injured. In our area, many kids were killed and a few people are injured too. The worst thing is that the [Trangul] electrical dam was affected. People are saying that the reservoir water will wash out the town."
China's official Xinhua news service quoted local officials as saying that many more people were still buried under the rubble left by collapsing houses in the region.
Officials said about 400 people were confirmed dead on Wednesday, with an estimated 10,000 others injured in the quake, which was followed by a series of aftershocks.
Houses and temples collapsed, with gas stations and electricity poles damaged. Some roads were structurally damaged or cut off by landslides triggered by the quake.
Many parts of the remote rural community, which is home to large numbers of Tibetans, were without power or phone lines after the first quake hit, and workers were scrambling to plug a leak in a local reservoir, local officials said.
"The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, we lack medical equipment, medicine and medical workers," Xinhua quoted Yushu government spokesman Zhuo Huaxia as saying.
More than 85 percent of the houses in Gyegu, almost all of which were made of wood and beaten earth, had collapsed, he said.
Hundreds of locally garrisoned People's Liberation Army (PLA) were digging through the rubble of homes, schools, and other buildings in the hope of finding survivors, Xinhua said.
But a resident of Yushu said in a telephone call that help was not immediately forthcoming.
“We could not retrieve bodies from the rubble immediately after the quake. Our family lives adjacent to a military unit and we requested assistance, but didn’t receive immediate help," the caller said.
"We were told that without orders from higher-ranking authorities, the unit could not begin rescue efforts. By the time the victims were pulled from the rubble, they were already dead.”
Another caller from Gyegu said residents there were forced to wait for help from authorities.
“People affected by the quake complained that no emergency response teams were available, even though the government said it had sent troops."
"Around 300 monks from various monasteries in Tibet are leaving
right now to help the victims," the caller said.
Reports have also trickled out of China, via the microblogging service Twitter, that reporters are being barred from covering the disaster.
Wang Xijun, a reporter with Southern TV Station, said local reporters were being pressured not to travel to the quake site.
"It suddenly feels as if many local TV reporters are having difficulty going to Yushu in a timely fashion. I don’t want to explain the reason," Wang tweeted.
The chief editor of the Beijing branch for Hunan Satellite TV said that a number of reporters had received notices from authorities to return to their offices from Yushu.
"A Chongqing Morning Post reporter suddenly received a notice from related authorities that he must return while en route to Yushu," the editor posted on his Twitter account.
"China's propaganda department has just issued a ban preventing reporters from other provinces from traveling to Yushu. The Shanghai Morning Post and Jiefang Daily already received notices."
Rescue efforts look set to be hampered by strong winds and sleet for the next few days, according to local weather forecasters.
Original reporting by Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service, Bi Zhimu for RFA's Cantonese service, and Guru Choegyi for RFA's Tibetan service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.