The toads were first to realise the danger. On Saturday, residents of the remote Tanmu village in Sichuan woke to find thousands of toads leaving the area. This strange experience was repeated in several other Sichuan towns. In Manzhu, local media reported hundreds of thousands of toads had appeared on the streets. They quoted a local resident as saying he saw countless toads killed by passing vehicles as they crossed roads. He had never seen anything like it. A day earlier, people in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, also said they saw tens of thousands of toads on the city's streets. While scientific evidence is scanty about toads' earthquake sensing abilities, clearly they knew something was up. Unfortunately, no one heeded the toads' warning.
Two days later the region was devastated. A massive near-eight magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan razing entire towns to the ground leaving thousands trapped in the rubble. An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people are missing and the official death toll is 15,000 and rising fast. 7,700 died in the town of Yingxiu alone, near the epicentre. In toad-less Manzhu, another 2,000 people died.
The 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck at 2.30pm local time Monday in Sichuan province in south-western China. The tremors were felt in faraway Shanghai where China’s tallest building, the Jinmao Tower, was evacuated. The epicentre was in Wenchuan County 90km northwest of the provincial capital Chengdu. All the highways into Wenchuan were damaged, hampering the rescue effort. Thousands of people were trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Communications with dozens of communities close to the epicentre of the quake remain cut so the full impact of the damage is not yet known. The city of Mianyang, home to China’s nuclear weapons design industry was hit hard sparking fears of a potential leak of radioactive material.
China has launched a massive relief operation mobilising its air force to help the 100,000 soldiers and police already in the region. The speed of the rescue is hampered by aftershocks and heavy rain. Most of the roads in the area have been cut off by the impact or subsequent landslides forcing rescue efforts to take to the air. Elite troops have parachuted in while the military will also conduct large-scale airdrops of food, clothing and blankets over the worst-hit areas.
A new hazard emerged yesterday when eye witnesses noticed major cracks in Zipingku dam, 30km from the epicentre. Zipingpu is a large water irrigation and water supply project in northwest Dujiangyan. The force of the quake ruined the baluster columns surrounding the dam. With communications cut off, most locals remain unaware of the danger. Xinhua news agency reported 2,000 troops are on their way to seal the cracks. If they fail, the Dujiangyan region could be swamped.
Elsewhere rescue efforts are concentrated on saving those trapped beneath fallen schools, businesses and homes. Two chemical plants collapsed in Shifang, crushing workers and releasing 80 tons of liquid ammonia. Because the quake occurred during school hours, students bore the brunt of the disaster. Several hundreds died in the collapse of Juyuan school. At least 201 students died at Muyu Middle School while many were sleeping. A third school at Wudu, 30km from the epicentre, has 130 dead children and 150 more still buried and feared dead. The Chinese embassy in the US estimated 4.3 million buildings collapsed or sustained major damage in the quake.
Some embittered survivors have already started blaming construction companies and local authorities. Building firms used substandard techniques and materials and corrupt local authorities deliberately ignored the problem. The resulting structures earned the name of "tofu buildings” referring to their softness. "It's nothing but corruption - they must have used sub-standard cement and steel," said one rescuer. Even the state-controlled media are raising questions about unsafe construction of schools. "We cannot afford not to raise uneasy questions about the structural quality of school buildings," the China Daily said in a rare critical commentary.