China on Wednesday evacuated nearly 60,000 people in its mountainous southwest after a strong earthquake killed at least 19 people, rattling a region where memories of a 2008 seismic disaster remain fresh.
The 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province late on Tuesday, tearing cracks in mountain highways, triggering landslides, damaging buildings and sending panicked residents and tourists fleeing into the open.
The provincial government said on Wednesday afternoon that most of the tourists — many stranded at a popular national park near the epicentre — have been evacuated after spending a nervous night out in the open as more than 1,000 aftershocks rippled across the region.
Locals will also be moved to safer ground, according to the authorities.
The area’s difficult geography — and travel restrictions quickly imposed by authorities — have so far prevented a clear picture of the scale of the disaster from emerging, but there were no reports of catastrophic damage or largescale casualties by Wednesday afternoon.
The quake killed at least 19 people and injured at least 247, 40 of them seriously, according to the local government of Aba prefecture where the epicentre was located. Two foreigners, a French man and a Canadian woman, are among the injured.
The Aba government said 1,680 private homes across Jiuzhaigou county’s 17 townships suffered varying degrees of damage.
Images on social media or in state news outlets showed cars and buses tossed into ravines or crushed by giant boulders jolted loose from surrounding hills, and rescue personnel combing through rubble for any victims.
Aerial footage broadcast by state-run Xinhua news agency showed picturesque green-forested mountains now scarred by huge gouges from giant landslides that sent clouds of dust into the air. The quake’s epicentre was near Jiuzhaigou, a national park and Unesco World Heritage Site famed for its karst rock formations, waterfalls and lakes.
Xinhua said at least five of the deaths occurred there, and that more than 30,000 people had been evacuated from Jiuzhaigou alone.
“Nearly all the tourists are being evacuated,” a Jiuzhaigou tour company worker who gave only her surname, Yan, said.
“We slept overnight in tour buses and have been staying in the open ground. Landslides are pretty bad, rocks keep falling down.”
China’s official earthquake monitoring agency said more than 1,000 aftershocks had been detected, the most powerful reaching magnitude 4.8 on Wednesday morning.
More than 2,000km to the northwest, a 6.3-magnitude tremor shook the far-western border region of Xinjiang on Wednesday morning, according to the US Geological Survey.