About 12,000 homes collapsed when the quake struck on Sunday afternoon in Ludian county, around 230 miles north-east of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.
China yesterday sent 2,500 soldiers to the impoverished area, with life-detection instruments and digging equipment.
They will join more than 300 police and firefighters from Zhaotong and about 400 emergency workers and sniffer dogs from across Yunnan province in the rescue operation. President Xi Jinping called for “all-out efforts” to find survivors as he dispatched soldiers to the area.
Ma Yaoqi, an 18-year-old volunteer in the quake zone, said that at least half of the buildings had collapsed on the road from the city centre of Zhaotong to the hardest hit town of Longtou. “I saw dead bodies being wrapped in quilts and carried away,” said Ms Yaoqi, who arrived with 20 other volunteers yesterday. “Some were wrapped with small quilts. Those must be kids.”
Overhead footage of the quake zone shot by state broadcaster CCTV showed older houses flattened but newer multi-storey buildings still standing.
The magnitude-6.1 quake struck at 4:30pm on Sunday at a depth of six miles, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). China’s earthquake monitoring agency put the magnitude at 6.5.
Rain and thunderstorms were forecast for the area yesterday afternoon, complicating efforts to bring supplies to survivors. Roads had caved in, and rescuers were forced to travel on foot.
Repeated aftershocks were also making the rescue work dangerous. The USGS showed four aftershocks of magnitude 4.5 and higher hitting after the initial quake.
The Yunnan Civil Affairs Bureau said on its website that 398 people were killed and 1,801 injured. Another 29,400 people were evacuated. The death toll is expected to rise after rescuers reach remote communities to assess casualties.
Many of the homes that collapsed in Ludian, which has a population of about 429,000, were old and made of brick, Xinhua said.
The mountainous region where the quake occurred is largely agricultural, with farming and mining the top industries, and is prone to earthquakes.
The Red Cross Society of China allocated quilts, jackets and tents for those made homeless by the quake, while Red Cross branches in Hong Kong, Macau and neighbouring Sichuan province also sent relief.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered “his condolences to the Chinese government and the families of those killed,” according to a statement from his office. The statement said the UN was ready to “lend its assistance to efforts to respond to humanitarian needs” and “to mobilise any international support needed.”
The White House also offered its condolences. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those that lost their lives,” said National Security Council deputy spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. “The United States stands ready to assist.”
The quake was the strongest to hit Yunnan in 14 years. In 1970, a magnitude-7.7 earthquake in Yunnan killed at least 15,000 people, and a magnitude-7.1 quake in the province killed more than 1,400 in 1974. In September 2012, 81 people died and 821 were injured in a series of quakes in the Yunnan region.
In May 2008, a powerful quake in Sichuan province left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing.