Desperate battle to shore up quake dam

Series of powerful tremors kill 589 in China but death toll may rise much higher
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The Independent Online

Chinese workers yesterday raced to prevent a damaged dam from bursting after a series of powerful earthquakes killed almost 600 people in a remote and mountainous Tibetan area of western China.

Soldiers struggled with only shovels and their hands to rescue people trapped in the wreckage of the traditional Tibetan-style mud and wood homes. The death toll was expected to rise and more than 10,000 people were injured. Several schools collapsed, killing at least 56 students with more trapped under the rubble. Bleeding survivors filled the streets of Jiegu, the town worst affected, some 20 miles from the epicentre, in Qinghai province.

The quake that hit the desperately poor county of Yushu and its population of about 280,000 was followed by another five large aftershocks within three hours, bringing down homes, schools and public buildings.

"Many of the people have been buried and our soldiers are trying to pull them out with human labour. It is very difficult to save people with our bare hands," one soldier, Shi Huajie, told the state broadcaster, China Central Television.

The quake, with a magnitude of 6.9, left a large crack in a dam in the area. Workers planned to release water from a reservoir to try to stop it from bursting and flooding the region.

Emergency officials said the dam could burst at any time, putting 100,000 people in danger. According to the US environmental group International Rivers, China's old dams have a poor safety record with more than 3,000 collapsing since the 1950s.

A larger 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the neighbouring Sichuan province in 2008, leaving almost 90,000 people dead or missing and sparking a huge political storm over corruption and substandard building work that meant that many schools were unable to withstand the quake.

Witnesses said most of the homes in Jiegu collapsed after the first quake along with temples and petrol stations. "In a flash, the houses went down," a local journalist, Karsum Nyima, told China Central Television. "In a small park, there is a Buddhist tower and the top of the tower fell off. Everybody is out on the streets, in front of their houses, trying to find their family members."

Pupils fled from the Yushu primary school after the quake hit at 7.49am. Many escaped before all the buildings collapsed but five students at the boarding school died, a teacher told Xinhua news agency. "Morning sessions did not begin when the quake happened. Some pupils ran out of dorms alive, and those who had not escaped in time were buried," he said.

Footage on Qinghai Satellite TV showed bodies wrapped in blankets lying on the ground while rescuers pulled shards of concrete from a flattened school building.

Hospitals were stretched to the limit in Yushu, a Tibetan trading centre and gateway to central Tibet. Medical equipment was in short supply and doctors were overwhelmed by the number of casualties after 85 per cent of the housing came down in Jiegu.

"There was so much dust in the air, we couldn't see anything," said Ren Yu, general manager of Yushu Hotel in Jiegu. "There was a lot of panic. People were crying on the streets." Hotel staff helped pull 70 people from other buildings but some died on the way to hospital, Mr Ren told the Associated Press.

More than 5,000 additional rescuers, including soldiers and medical workers, were heading to the area. The provincial government said it was sending 5,000 tents and 100,000 coats and blankets to the region, situated at around 13,000 feet, where night temperatures fall below freezing. Rescuers were struggling to reach the area because of its remoteness. There are also reports that landslides have blocked roads.

The provincial capital of Qinghai, Xining, is nearly 500 miles away. The nearest airport was damaged in the quake but rescue flights started to arrive by afternoon. Many telephone lines were down and roads badly damaged. Qinghai is one of China's poorest provinces, and most of the five million people make their living from agriculture. The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Buddhist Tibetans, sent a message of sympathy.

The province averages more than five earthquakes a year of at least a magnitude of 5.0. They normally do not cause much damage, given the sparse population, but in 1927, an earthquake of a magnitude of 8.6 killed 200,000 people.

Qinghai: A disputed territory

* Qinghai has a population of five million, most of whom make their living from agriculture. Much of the province is desert and has been largely uninhabited in the past.

* For centuries, Qinghai was part of Tibet. It became a Chinese province in 1928. More than half of the population of the province are Han Chinese. However, activists opposed to Chinese rule see it as part of an independent Tibet.

* The county of Yushu was hit hardest by the quake. It has a population of about 280,000; 97 per cent of them are Tibetan. It is one of the poorest areas in the country. China has invested heavily in Yushu in recent years, building an airport and a highway to link it with the provincial capital, Xining.