A magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck a remote mountainous region in western China today, killing at least 600 people and injuring about 10,000. The temblor occurred at 7:49 a.m. in Qinghai province, with its epicenter in Yushu county, an area populated mostly by Tibetans.
State television showed soldiers and police digging through the rubble to rescue people buried under their collapsed houses. A local official said more than 85 percent of the houses made of mud and wood were destroyed in Jiegu, the biggest town in the area located 20 miles from the epicenter. It had a population of 100,000, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
"The streets in Jiegu are thronged with panic and full of injured people, with many of them bleeding from their injuries," the official told Xinhua.
The quake sent residents fleeing from their homes, said Karsum Nyima, the deputy head of news in the Yushu county television station.
"In a flash, the houses went down. It was a terrible earthquake," he said, speaking to broadcaster CCTV by phone. "Everybody is out on the streets, standing in front of their houses, trying to find their family members."
A police official in the rescue operation expressed fear about the fate of students buried by a collapsed school building. "I am in the school compound here," he told CCTV in a phone interview. "There are students buried in the rubble and we are trying to rescue them."
A local driver who took part in the rescue work told state media, "I do not know how many students have died. Students just got up and were yet to go to class when the quake happened. I recovered several bodies from the debris and found they were fully dressed."
A rescue official told Xinhua," Our top priority is to save the students. Schools are always places that have many people."
A CCTV reporter who made the first live broadcast from the quake zone described seeing cracks in the bridges he passed along the six mile road from the airport. The reporter also told viewers that at least two reservoirs were damaged by the quake.
Chinese authorities announced the dispatch of additional rescue teams made up of 5,000 soldiers and medical personnel to the quake zone. About 700 soldiers were already in the hardest-hit area to rescue those buried under the rubble.
In a statement, the Qinghai provincial government said 5,000 tents and 100,000 thick, cotton coats were being sent to help survivors cope with the strong winds and temperatures of about 43 degrees.
The quake zone is situated on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, about 12,000 feet above sea level. The area is prone to earthquakes and Chinese authorities listed 53 quakes with the magnitude of 5 or higher that happened in Qinghai province during the past decade.
Today's quake was followed by a string of aftershocks, with the biggest one having a magnitude of 6.3.
The earthquake occurred a little less than two years after a magnitude 7.9 quake in neighboring Sichuan province left more than 87,500 dead.