Rescuers were Thursday still heading to Qinghai province, China, as witnesses have of the devastation wrought by the earthquake which has near flattened the town of Jiegu.
Around 10,000 people have been injured, while over 600 were killed. Many remain trapped.
“The situation is really bad here. The damage is huge,” said Pierre Deve, a Frenchman working for a Chinese non-governmental organisation in Jiegu near the epicentre of Wednesday’s quake.
“Around 70 to 80 percent of the town has collapsed. Only a few buildings are still up,” he told AFP by phone, adding that fires had broken out in some areas.
Locals in the overwhelmingly Tibetan region were alerted to trouble by an early-morning tremor, followed a couple of hours later by the 6.9 magnitude quake.
Many ‘stop searching’
Chaos ensued as people frantically searched for loved ones buried in debris, but then a curious calm set in, said Deve.
“What might be surprising is that a lot of people, due to a lack of experience maybe, stopped searching for survivors after a couple of hours. They just kind of gave up,” he said.
“You could see lots of wounded people walking around. The bodies were usually left at people’s homes. There were bodies everywhere in the rubble.”
Pu Wu, an ethnic Tibetan witness to the disaster who works for another NGO, told AFP that more rescue personnel and equipment were badly needed in Jiegu.
“Lots of people here are immersed in the pain of losing their relatives. The water is polluted, we need drinking water and food. People can’t find a place to buy a bottle of water or instant noodles,” he said.
Chen Xinmei, who works for an educational organisation affiliated with some of the region’s schools, said parts of Jiegu were “unrecognisable” due to the damage.
“Homes built with earth or bricks have basically all collapsed,” she said, adding that many concrete and steel structures had either fallen or suffered heavy damage.
Bodies lie unclaimed
She visited some schools that collapsed in the quake and saw up to 10 bodies of children that had not been claimed by parents, apparently because they were mangled beyond recognition.
Deve said that except for those still looking frantically for loved ones in the town, most residents had abandoned it for camps set up by the Chinese government’s relief operation outside of town.
“There was a big movement of the population today from the city to the horse festival ground on the outskirts of town,” he said.
The largest of the government tent camps was set up at the festival grounds, where Tibetans stage horse races and other traditional equestrian games.
Witnesses said the situation was calm on Thursday and there was no sign of public unrest as China poured police, soldiers and emergency personnel into the area to launch rescue operations.
“What is clear is that (local residents’) moods are not great. Of course some are crying over lost loved ones. This is normal,” Chen said.
“Parents know this is an act of god so there have been no unusual actions when they have gone to claim the bodies of students.”
Pu Wu added: “The government is working hard to organise rescue work, but obviously more rescuers and equipment are needed.”