YA’AN, China – Residents huddled outdoors Saturday night in a town near the epicenter of a powerful earthquake that struck the steep hills of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, leaving at least 160 people dead and more than 6,700 injured.
Saturday morning’s earthquake triggered landslides and disrupted phone and power connections in mountainous Lushan county five years after a devastating quake wreaked widespread damage across the region.
The village of Longmen was hit particularly hard, with authorities saying nearly all the buildings there had been destroyed in a frightening minute-long shaking by the quake.
In nearby Ya’an town, where aftershocks could be felt nearly 20 hours after the quake, residents sat in groups outside convenience stores watching the news on television sets.
Fourteen-year-old Wang Xing sat with her family on chairs by the roadside, a blanket on her lap. Wang and her relatives said they planned to spend the night in their cars.
“We don’t feel safe sleeping at home tonight,” said Wang, a student. “It was very scary when it happened. I ran out of my bed and out of the house. I didn’t even have my shoes on.”
Along the main roads leading to the worst-hit county of Lushan, ambulances, fire engines and military trucks piled high with supplies waited in long lines, some turning back to try other routes when roads were impassable.
Rescuers turned the square outside the Lushan County Hospital into a triage center, where medical personnel bandaged bleeding victims, according to footage on China Central Television. Rescuers dynamited boulders that had fallen across roads to reach Longmen and other damaged areas lying farther up the mountain valleys, state media reported.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived Saturday afternoon by helicopter in Ya’an to direct rescue efforts, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.
“The current priority is to save lives,” Li said, after visiting hospitals, tents and climbing on a pile of rubble to view the devastation, Xinhua said.
The China Earthquake Administration said at least 160 people had died, and more than 6,700 were injured. At least 96 people were killed in Lushan, and in the jurisdiction of Ya’an, which administers Lushan, 19 people were reported missing, the administration said.
The quake — measured by the earthquake administration at magnitude-7.0 and by the U.S. Geological Survey at 6.6 — struck the steep hills of Lushan county shortly after 8 a.m., when many people were at home, sleeping or having breakfast. People in their underwear and wrapped in blankets ran into the streets of Ya’an and even the provincial capital of Chengdu, 70 miles east of Lushan, according to photos, video and accounts posted online.
Chengdu’s airport shut down for about an hour before reopening, although many flights were canceled or delayed, and its railway station halted dozens of scheduled trains, state media said.
Lushan reported the most deaths, but there was concern that casualties in neighboring Baoxing county might have been under-reported because of inaccessibility after roads were blocked and power and phone services cut off.
Tens of thousands of people moved into tents or cars, unable to return home or too afraid to go back as aftershocks continued to jolt the region.
Lushan, where the quake struck, lies where the fertile Sichuan plain meets foothills that eventually rise to the Tibetan plateau and sits atop the Longmenshan fault.