In a devastating occurrence just before midnight on Monday, a powerful magnitude-6.2 earthquake ravaged one of China’s most impoverished regions, resulting in a tragic toll of at least 127 fatalities, leaving hundreds injured, and collapsing mud houses in isolated villages that were particularly vulnerable.
The sixth commune of Dahe village, situated in the northwestern Gansu province, emerged as one of the hardest-hit areas, where Chinese state media witnessed numerous homes on the brink of collapse or already reduced to rubble, especially those constructed with earth and clay.
The seismic event, striking at 11:59 p.m. local time on Monday at a depth of 10 km, rocked Gansu’s Jishishan county. The epicentre, merely 5 km from the provincial border connecting Gansu and Qinghai, caused substantial tremors in the surrounding regions.
Amid the aftermath, more than 155,000 homes in Gansu were either damaged or destroyed, prompting a swift mobilization of emergency measures. However, the rescue operations faced formidable challenges in sub-zero temperatures following a severe cold wave across the country, impeding efforts to assist those affected.
Notably, Gansu lies within a seismic zone, positioned on the northeastern edge of the active Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, where earthquakes are not uncommon. The most catastrophic earthquake in recent memory struck Sichuan in 2008, registering a magnitude of 8.0 and claiming nearly 70,000 lives.
As of 1:00 p.m. Tuesday, authorities confirmed 113 fatalities and 536 injuries in Gansu, while Qinghai reported 14 deaths and 198 injuries by 4:50 p.m. Twenty individuals remained missing, adding to the urgency of the ongoing rescue operations.
In response to the crisis, a substantial force of over 2,200 personnel from the Gansu provincial fire department, 900 from the forest brigade, along 260 professional emergency rescue workers, were deployed to the disaster zone. Additionally, significant support from the military and police bolstered the relief efforts.
The provincial government allocated 20 million yuan ($2.8 million) for emergency response, dispatching essential supplies including 2,600 cotton tents, 10,400 folding beds, 10,400 quilts, 10,400 cotton mattresses, and 1,000 sets of stoves to the affected areas.
In Jishishan County, which spans numerous villages and townships with a population of approximately 260,000 people, local authorities emphasized their reliance on the provincial government due to limited resources, highlighting the economic challenges faced by Gansu as one of China’s poorest provinces.
Amidst the high-altitude, cold weather conditions in the disaster zone, rescue efforts aimed to prevent secondary disasters stemming from the aftermath of the quake. The frigid temperature, around minus 14 degrees Celsius in Linxia, further complicated the rescue mission and posed additional risks to trapped victims.
The quake’s impact extended beyond structural damage, affecting essential infrastructure like water, electricity, transportation, and communications, with numerous highways and rural roads sustaining damage due to landslides.
Despite the widespread destruction, a major hydropower dam close to the epicentre remained unaffected, operating without disruption, as reported by CCTV.
In the wake of the disaster, remote villages in Qinghai witnessed mudslides triggered by the quake, leaving houses partially submerged in silt. Rescue operations deployed drones, excavators, and bulldozers in search of survivors in these areas.
The seismic shockwaves were felt as far as 1,000 km away in central Henan province, where residents woke up to swaying furniture and promptly sought refuge in open areas for safety.
Preliminary analysis categorized the earthquake as a thrust-type rupture, with reports of at least 32 aftershocks recorded within an hour of the initial quake. Gansu officials highlighted the last significant quake within a 100 km radius of the epicentre occurring in 2019, underscoring the region’s seismic vulnerability.
Additionally, separate seismic events were recorded in Xinjiang, with a magnitude-5.5 quake at a depth of 10 km, and in Sichuan, where a magnitude-3.1 quake struck at a shallow depth of 8 km, although no casualties were reported in the latter.
The succession of earthquakes in these regions has prompted intensified efforts in rescue operations and raised concerns about the seismic activity in these areas.