CHENGDU, China — A powerful earthquake struck Western China on Monday, toppling thousands of homes, factories and offices, trapping students in schools, and killing at least 10,000 people, the country’s worst natural disaster in three decades.The quake, which was estimated preliminarily to have had a magnitude of 7.9, ravaged a mountainous region outside Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, just after lunchtime Monday, destroying 80 percent of structures in some of the towns and small cities near its epicenter, Chinese officials said. Its tremors were felt as far away as Vietnam and set off another, smaller quake in the outskirts of Beijing, 900 miles away.
Landslides, power failures and fallen mobile phone towers left much of the affected area cut off from the outside world and limited information about the damage. But snapshots of concentrated devastation suggested that the death toll that could rise significantly as rescue workers reached the most heavily damaged areas.
In the town of Juyuan, south of the epicenter in the city of Wenchuan, a school collapsed, trapping 900 students in the rubble and setting off a frantic search for survivors that stretched through the night. Two chemical factories in Shifang were destroyed, spilling 80 tons of toxic liquid ammonia, officials told Chinese state media.
The destruction of a single steam turbine factory in the city of Mianzhu buried “several thousand” people, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Tuesday morning.
The quake was already China’s biggest natural disaster since another earthquake leveled the city of Tangshan in eastern China in 1976, leaving 240,000 people dead and posing a severe challenge to the ruling Communist Party, which initially tried to cover up the catastrophe.
This time, officials quickly mobilized 50,000 soldiers to help with rescue efforts, state media said. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao flew to the scene and was shown coordinating disaster response teams from the cabin of his jet.
The prime minister was later shown on national television standing outside the damaged edifice of the Traditional Medicine Hospital in the city of Dujiangyan, shouting encouragement at people trapped in its ruins.
The powerful initial quake struck at 2:28 p.m. local time, or 2:28 a.m. Eastern time, near Wenchuan County, according to China’s State Seismological Bureau. Most of the heavy damage appeared to be concentrated in nearby towns, which by Chinese standards are not heavily populated. Chengdu, the largest city in the area, with a population of about 10 million, is about 60 miles away and did not appear to have suffered major damage or heavy casualties.“Seven thousand people have died in Beichuan, a single county, and we think Wenchuan will be similar, too, because it was the epicenter,” said Kang Zhilin, a spokesman for the hospital. He added: “The first patients who came had jumped from buildings because they were frightened.”
A woman, Tang Hong, 50, sat beside her injured husband, Yan Chaozhong, in the hospital. They had arrived early in the morning from Dujiangyan County, one place that had suffered heavy damage. They had been inside their fourth-floor apartment when the quake hit. “It was violent,” she said. “Even when we crouched down, it flattened us.”
Ms. Tang said she and her husband had tried to escape down a stairwell, but a second tremor knocked her husband down the stairs, and he broke three ribs. She said four six-story buildings on her street had been flattened. She also wept as she described how a school for handicapped and deaf students collapsed while the children were in class. “It was horrible,” she said. “The entire school building collapsed.”
There were reports of fatalities in Chongqing Municipality, near Sichuan, where two primary schools were damaged. Four pupils died and more than 100 others were injured, state media reported. Xinhua devoted extensive coverage to the disaster, publishing regular updates on the situation, including latest death tolls, on its Chinese and English Web sites. The relatively vigorous flow of information and the fast response from top officials and rescue workers stood in stark contrast to the way China handled the Tangshan earthquake, or the way the military junta that rules neighboring Myanmar has managed the aftermath of a giant cyclone that killed nearly 32,000 people there this month, according to Burmese government estimates.source