A rescuer in Ya'an City carries a child to safety after she was pulled… (AFP/Getty Images )
BEIJING -- A strong earthquake struck China’s mountainous Sichuan province Saturday morning, leaving at least 156 people dead and more than 3,000 injured.
Chinese authorities assessed the magnitude of the quake at 7.0, while the U.S. Geological Survey reported 6.6.
Although nowhere near as powerful in magnitude, the tremor evoked memories of the great earthquake almost exactly five years ago along the same fault line that killed almost 90,000.
The earthquake’s epicenter was about 80 miles southwest of the provincial capital of Chengdu, in Lushan county near the city of Ya’an. The city of 1.5 million is best known for its panda breeding research center, which was reported not to have sustained serious damage.
"Comparatively speaking, the scale of the disaster is not as extensive as in 2008, although there are still multiple locations effected," said Meimei Leung, emergency response director for World Vision’s China office.
Leung said the experiences of 2008 left people and government better prepared. “This time people knew what to do. As soon as the tremors started, they went out into open areas. The government also is working in a well-organized manner. They very quickly put together an emergency response plan that took them a couple of days in 2008,’’ she said.
The quake at 8 a.m. jolted residents out of bed and people ran into the streets wearing their pajamas, according to reports from the scene.
"We were very calm. We have gained experience from the last earthquake. It took us 30 seconds to leave everything and run," one middle-aged man told Chinese media.
A 22-year-old woman despaired that her house survived the first earthquake, but not this latest one.
"When the May 12 earthquake happened, I thought I was lucky …. I still had a home to go back to. Now our house can't be lived in anymore. I feel really lost. Where I should go? What I should do after all this?’’ she wrote on a microblog posting.
Jiang Haikun, an official with the China Earthquake Network Center, told the official New China news agency that Saturday’s quake was similar to May 12, 2008 disaster centered in Wenchuan -- about 150 miles away -- as both occurred on the same Longmen mountain fault zone.
Officials also warned of aftershocks and secondary disasters such as landslides, road and cave collapses, especially since a light rain was falling over the mountainous area on Saturday.
Chinese authorities put the death toll at 156 by nightfall but the numbers could climb significantly as reports come in from more remote villages. Communications networks were still disabled in many areas and roads are impassible.
The rescue effort will be a test for the newly installed government of Xi Jinping, who took over as president in March. His premier, Li Keqiang, toured the earthquake-stricken area on Saturday.
"The current most urgent issue is grasping the first 24 hours after the quake's occurrence, the golden time for saving lives, to take scientific rescue measures and save peoples' lives," Li was quoted as telling state media.
Nearly 8,000 soldiers from the People's Liberation Army were deployed to the earthquake area. Compounding the tragedy, a military vehicle carrying 17 soldiers slid off a cliff into a river, killing one soldier and seriously injuring three.