Updated with latest figures on Tuesday morning.
Two days after a magnitude 7.0-earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province, residents are still awaiting rescue as well as essentials like drinking water, food, medicine and tents. The epicenter of the earthquake was in Lushan, a rural county 160 km southwest of the provincial capital, Chengdu. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency quotes local officials as saying that there have been at least 192 deaths, more than 11,000 injured and that 23 people remain missing. However, confirming death tolls and damage to buildings has proved difficult, because police have been stopping both foreign and Chinese media from entering Lushan county from the nearby city of Ya’an.
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Just five years ago, Sichuan province was home to a massive earthquake that devastated parts of the region and caused the deaths of almost 70,000 people. That quake then became a political storm as it was found that a disproportionate number of government-built schools had collapsed during the tremors, killing many children. That this earthquake was also in Sichuan has given the government cause to react quickly and publicly. On Saturday, Premier Li Keqiang traveled from Beijing to the area to witness the relief effort firsthand. Local government officials have commented that more supplies are needed for the victims still left in Lushan county, while Premier Li stated simply that the rescue effort must not waste any time. “The current most urgent issue is grasping the first 24 hours after the quake’s occurrence, the golden time for saving lives,” Li said, adding that “[rescuers must] take scientific rescue measures and save people’s lives.”
This latest quake struck at 8:02 a.m. on Saturday when Ren Keming, 19, was preparing for his school sports day in Ya’an. “I was in the middle of getting changed when the room started to rock, things began to shake all over the place.” Ren did as many others did and raced to the ground floor to join his teachers in the gymnasium, where the floor was wide and flat. “We had to leave whatever building we were in and get out into the open,” says Dong Wen, a 19-year-old student at Sichuan Agricultural University in Ya’an. “A lot of the girls couldn’t control themselves; they were crying so much,” she adds, noting that some of the male classmates tried their best to console the girls but others panicked. “Around five boys jumped out of a window several stories high,” says Dong, adding that they broke legs and bones, but suffered no more serious injuries than that.
On Sunday, residents of the city were still frightened by the aftershocks that shook the area frequently. Warnings circulated among residents that forecast further large tremors at night, and those in Ya’an chose not to sleep in their homes for fear of having to navigate shifting stairs and crumbling walls during their escape in the event of another serious quake. “When we woke up this morning we couldn’t walk on our own floor; the building was moving so much,” says the owner of a camping-goods shop in the town’s central shopping district. “There would be no way we could make it down the stairs and out of the building if a tremor like that comes back.” The owner said he and his family would instead sleep in their ground-floor shop that evening, but they would not close the door. “If there is a tremor this time we will be able to escape immediately,” he says. “My car is parked across the street; we will sleep in there should anything happen.”
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And so by nightfall, along sidewalks and in parks, coach stations and on the riverside promenade, there were crowds and crowds of tents. Beside some tents there were chairs, mah-jongg tables or food to snack on, while some less prepared or less fortunate were simply wrapped in their bedsheets, on the ground. The shop owner explained on Saturday evening that several hundred people had come to his store in search of tents since the quake struck that same morning. A short walk from the otherwise picturesque riverside there were people with less choice over where they’re sleeping that evening, as a local hospital treated over a hundred patients in its outdoor parking area. Some patients were squeezed in, two to a bed, although basic sanitary levels were being met. With the constant tremors deterring doctors from treating patients inside and with only more patients to be brought out from Lushan, it remained unclear how the hospital would cope in the immediate future.
Meanwhile, even 24 hours after the quake, and as aftershocks continued to frighten entire buildings out onto the streets, those in Ya’an were not resting yet. Early on Sunday morning the shutters of the camping store were finally closed; the owner’s family sitting by a tree on the other side of the road. “There was a large tremor at around 3:45 a.m.,” says the owner. “We won’t be sleeping inside for the time being.”