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Death toll rises in earthquake in Sichuan, China

    In this photo provided by China's official Xinhua News Agency, a giant rock blocks the road, about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the county seat of Lushan in Ya'an city, southwest China's Sichuan Province, Saturday, April 20, 2013. A powerful earthquake jolted China's Sichuan province Saturday near where a devastating quake struck five years ago. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Hai Mingwei) NO SALES
    In this photo provided by China's official Xinhua News Agency, students gather outside their school buildings to avoid aftershocks of an earhtquake, in Dazhou, southwest China's Sichuan Province, Saturday, April 20, 2013. People were killed Saturday when a powerful earthquake jolted China's Sichuan province near the same area where a devastating quake struck five years ago, with state media warning the casualty toll could climb sharply. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Deng Liangkui) NO SALES

BEIJING >>  A powerful earthquake jolted China’s Sichuan province Saturday (Friday in Hawaii) near where a devastating quake struck five years ago, killing at least 70 people and leaving more than 2,000 hurt, prompting worries the death toll will climb.

The quake — measured by China’s seismological bureau at magnitude-7 and the U.S. Geological Survey at 6.6 — struck the steep hills of Lushan county shortly after 8 a.m. toppling buildings, many of them older brick structures. Tiles fell from roofs and walls collapsed, sending people into the streets in their underwear and wrapped in blankets.

Rescue workers turned a square outside the Lushan’s county hospital into a triage center with medical personnel treating the wounded, according to footage on China Central Television.

The emergency response office for the city of Ya’an, which administers Lushan, said the death toll had climbed to 70, including 56 from Lushan, as of 2 p.m., with more than 2,000 injured.

It said in a written statement that nearly all of the structures in Longmen village collapsed and that nearly 10,000 houses were damaged throughout the county.

Hard-hit parts of the county remained unreachable by road, with several highways cut off, the statement said.

The county’s power grid has been disrupted and phone services were only partially available, the authorities said. State media said some text and Internet services were working.

A person whose posts to a micro-blogging account “Qingyi Riverside” on Sina Corp.’s Twitter-like Weibo service carried a Lushan geotag said that many buildings collapsed and that people could spot helicopters hovering above.

Aerial photos released by China’s military and shown on state television showed individual houses in ruins and some stretches of the county seat and villages flattened into rubble. The roofs of some taller buildings appeared to have slipped off exposing the floors beneath them.

The quake’s shallow depth, less than 8 miles, likely magnified the impact and CCTV showed footage from local security cameras shaking. Xinhua said that the quake rattled buildings in the provincial capital of Chengdu 70 miles, to the east. It caused the shutdown of the city’s airport for about an hour before reopening, state media said.

Lushan, where the quake struck, is home to 124,000 people where the fertile Sichuan plain meets foothills that eventually rise to the Tibetan plateau. The area is near a well-known preserve for pandas, Bifengxia, which Xinhua said was not affected by the quake. Dozens of pandas were moved to Bifengxia from another preserve, Wolong, after its habitat was wrecked by the 2008 quake.

Ya’an authorities said more than 2,000 rescuers were dispatched to the disaster area, along with excavators, loaders, 200 tents and 1,400 quilts.

Premier Li Keqiang flew to Ya’an to direct rescue efforts, and he and President Xi Jinping ordered officials and rescuers to make saving people the top priority, Xinhua said.

Social media users who said they were in Lushan county posted photos of collapsed buildings and reported that water and electricity had been cut off. At least 35 aftershocks — at least two of them at magnitude-5 or higher — shook the area.

“It’s too dangerous,” said a person with the Weibo account Chengduxinglin and with a Lushan geotag. “Even the aftershocks are scary.”

The area lies near the same Longmenshan fault where the devastating 7.9-magnitude quake struck May 12, 2008, leaving more than 90,000 people dead or missing and presumed dead.

“It was just like May 12,” said Liu Xi, a writer in Ya’an city, who was jolted awake by Saturday’s quake. “All the home decorations fell at once, and the old house cracked.”

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