XINING, China - Soldiers and civilians used shovels and their bare hands to dig through collapsed buildings in search of survivors after strong earthquakes struck a mountainous Tibetan region of China yesterday, killing at least 589 people and injuring more than 10,000.
The series of quakes flattened buildings across remote western Yushu county and sent survivors flooding into the streets of Jiegu township. State television showed block after devastated block of toppled mud and wood homes. Local officials said 85 percent of the structures had been destroyed.
Residents and troops garrisoned in the town worked to pull survivors and bodies out of the rubble much of the day. Schools collapsed, with the state news agency saying at least 56 students died.
Crews set up emergency generators to restore operations at Yushu's airport, and by late afternoon the first of six flights landed carrying rescue workers and equipment. But the road to town was blocked by a landslide, hampering the rescue as temperatures dropped below freezing. Tens of thousands of the town's 70,000 people were without shelter, state media said.
The airport in Xining, the nearest city but 530 miles away, was filled in the predawn hours today with troops in camouflage, firefighters and rescue teams leading sniffer dogs. They were whisked onto buses for the difficult drive to the quake zone, which takes 12 hours under the best of conditions.
Yang Xuesong, a rescuer from Shandong province in eastern China, said his biggest concern was the altitude. "This is the highlands. I don't know if the search dogs can get used to it," he said.
The location posed logistical difficulties. The area sits at around 13,000 feet and is poor. Most people live in Jiegu, with the rest, mostly herders, scattered across the broad valleys.
With people forced outside, the provincial government said it was rushing 5,000 tents and 100,000 coats and blankets to the region, where average daily temperatures were around 43 degrees Fahrenheit.
The initial quake, measured at magnitude-6.9 by the U.S. Geological Survey and 7.1 by the China Earthquake Networks Center, hit Yushu at 7:49 a.m. local time Wednesday. It was followed by five more tremors within three hours, all but one registering 5.0 or higher.