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At least 127 killed in China’s deadliest quake in nearly a decade

A strong overnight earthquake rattled a mountainous region of northwestern China, authorities said Tuesday, destroying homes, leaving residents out in a below-freezing winter night and killing 127 people in the nation’s deadliest quake in nine years.

The magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck just before midnight on Monday, injuring more than 700 people, damaging roads and knocking out power and communication lines in Gansu and Qinghai provinces, officials and Chinese media reports said.

WATCH | Aftermath of the earthquake: 

See the aftermath of a powerful earthquake in China’s Gansu province

In video obtained by Reuters, rubble fills streets in Jishishan county, in China’s Gansu province, in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake.

As emergency workers searched for the missing in collapsed buildings and at least one landslide, people who lost their homes were preparing to spend a cold winter night in tents at hastily erected evacuation sites.

“I just feel anxious, what other feelings could there be?” said Ma Dongdong, who said in a phone interview that three bedrooms in his house had been destroyed. Afraid to return home because of aftershocks, he spent the night in a field with his wife, two children and some neighbours, where they made a fire to stay warm.

Bricks and concrete debris are shown on the ground in a nighttime photograph, with several people gathered in the distance around a fire.
The quake sent people outdoors in bitterly cold weather. Residents are shown keeping warm around a fire in Dahejia in Gansu province early Tuesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

In the early morning, they went to a tent settlement that Ma said was housing about 700 people. As of mid-afternoon, they were waiting for blankets and warm clothing to arrive.

The overnight low in the area ranged from -9 C to -15 C, the China Meteorological Administration said.

Hundreds injured from shallow quake

The earthquake struck at a relatively shallow depth of 10 kilometres in Gansu’s Jishishan county, about five kilometres from the provincial boundary with Qinghai, the China Earthquake Networks Centre said. The U.S. Geological Survey measured the magnitude at 5.9.

State broadcaster CCTV said 113 were confirmed dead in Gansu and another 536 injured in the province. Fourteen others were killed and 182 injured in Qinghai, in an area north of the epicentre, a local Communist Party official said at a news conference.

Qinghai officials reported 20 people missing in a landslide, according to Chinese state-owned media.

Li Haibing, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, said that the relatively high number of casualties in the latest quake was in part because it was shallow.

“Therefore, it has caused greater shaking and destruction, even though the magnitude was not large,” he said.

Several pieces of lumber and other debris are shown on the ground as rescue workers in helmets and bright clothing conduct a search.
In this aerial photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers on Tuesday search a collapsed building in Caotan village of Minhe Hui and Tu Autonomous County in Haidong City, Qinghai Province. (Zhang Hongxiang/Xinhua/The Associated Press)

Other factors include the quake’s mainly vertical movement, which causes more violent shaking; the lower quality of buildings in what is a relatively poor area; and the fact that it happened in the middle of the night when most people were home, Li said.

The remote and mountainous area is home to several predominantly Muslim ethnic groups and near some Tibetan communities.

Several aftershocks

There were nine aftershocks by 10 a.m. — about 10 hours after the initial earthquake — the largest one registering a magnitude of 4.1, the Gansu official said.

The earthquake was felt in much of the surrounding area, including Lanzhou, the Gansu provincial capital, about 100 kilometres northeast of the epicentre. Photos and videos posted by a student at Lanzhou University showed students hastily leaving a dormitory building and standing outside with long down jackets over their pajamas.

“The earthquake was too intense,” said Wang Xi, the student who posted the images. “My legs went weak, especially when we ran downstairs from the dormitory.”

This aerial photo shows damage after the earthquake.
This aerial photo shows damage after the earthquake, on Tuesday in Jishishan, Gansu province. (AFP/Getty Images)

Tents, folding beds and quilts were being sent to the disaster area, state broadcaster CCTV said. It quoted Chinese leader Xi Jinping as calling for an all-out search and rescue effort to minimize the casualties.

At least 4,000 firefighters, soldiers and police officers were dispatched in the rescue effort, officials said. A video posted by the Ministry of Emergency Management showed emergency workers in orange uniforms using rods to try to move heavy pieces of what looked like concrete debris at night.

Earthquakes are somewhat common in the mountainous area of western China that rises up to form the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

The death toll was the highest for an earthquake in China since August 2014, when 617 people were killed in southwest China’s Yunnan province.

The country’s deadliest earthquake in recent years was a 7.9 magnitude quake in 2008 that left nearly 90,000 dead or presumed dead and devastated towns and schools in Sichuan province.

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