At least 180 people have been killed and about 11,200 injured after a strong earthquake hit the city of Yaan in Sichuan province yesterday, just three weeks short of the fifth anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake that claimed more than 88,000 lives in May, 2008.
The quake, which was measured at a magnitude of 7.0 by the mainland earthquake administration and 6.6 by the US Geological Survey, struck mountainous Lushan county at 8am.
People ran for their lives into the streets of towns and villages, some still in their pyjamas. Three people were reported to have died after jumping from windows in the provincial capital, Chengdu, about 140 kilometres northeast of the epicentre.
Longmen, Baosheng and Taiping townships were the worst hit. A Lushan county spokesman said 3,200 people were treated for injuries in local hospitals.
The quake, while not of that great a magnitude, was shallow, striking at depth of only about 13 kilometres, meaning damage was widespread. Buildings in Longmen were severely damaged and residents said the jolt was so strong and sudden that it instantly brought back memories of the disaster five years ago.
"I was scared to death to see everything dropping down just as we were having breakfast," said Sha Qingqing, a 27-year-old mother.
Sun Shihong, a senior researcher at the China Earthquake Networks Centre, said the quake might be related to the 2008 disaster, as both took place along the Longmen fault line.
Authorities in Lushan county said 10 schoolchildren were killed and seven injured. However, most schools were closed for the weekend. In 2008, an estimated 5,000 children died when shoddily built schools collapsed.
Authorities and the military responded more quickly yesterday than to the devastating quake five years ago. More than 7,500 PLA soldiers and armed police were deployed and 10,000 others put on standby. Military reconnaissance aircraft were sent from Beijing to survey the disaster zone and help with planning of rescue operations. Nearly 7,000 officers and firefighters from the People's Armed Police were mobilised.
Xinhua reported that General Li Shimin, commander of the PLA's Chengdu command, had walked for more than three hours to reach the centre of Lushan county by 3.40pm to personally direct rescue efforts.
Social media and web users helped forward information and pleas for help.
President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both gave orders to make saving lives a priority.
Li arrived in Longmen, a town of 20,000, at about 5.30pm and ordered soldiers to reach Baosheng, cut off by landslides, "even if they don't sleep at all".
He also ordered the army and other government agencies to spare no effort in saving lives within the "golden 24 hours", after which chances of survival decline dramatically.
"Our soldiers and armed police are all young men. They should work hard and rescue people," Li told senior officials.
He later visited survivors staying in tents in the grounds of a secondary school.