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This day that year: Catastrophic earthquake in 1976 killed over 2 lakh people in China's Tangshan

Records state a minimum of 2,42,000 people had died due to the impact of the Tangshan earthquake. However, media reports also claimed  the death toll was thrice as mentioned in government records.

India TV News Desk Edited by: India TV News Desk New Delhi Published on: July 28, 2021 11:46 IST
Tangshan earthquake 1976
Image Source : AP/REPRESENTATIVE

Tangshan earthquake 1976 was one of the most powerful earthquakes in the world history

Today (July 28, 2021) marks 45 years of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. Also known as the Great Tangshan earthquake, this natural disaster, measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale, hit the region around Tangshan, Hebei, the People's Republic of China at 3:42 am. According to the details, the maximum intensity of the earthquake was XI (Extreme) on the Mercali scale. Records state a minimum of 2,42,000 people had died due to the impact of the earthquake. However, several media reports also claim the death toll was thrice as mentioned in government records, thus, making it the third deadliest earthquake in recorded history.

Tangshan earthquake 1976: Unusual activities before tremors

The Chinese State Seismological Bureau (SSB) Analysis and Prediction Department was very accurate with the prediction of the earthquake, with an estimate of a major earthquake in the Tangshan region between July 22 and August 5. Despite voicing concerns, the prediction was not taken seriously. A few counties that listened to the advised saved thousands of lives by evacuating to safer areas days before the earthquake occurred.

Media reports have said people had begun noticing strange phenomena in and around Tangshan, several days before the Tangshan earthquake. Well-water levels rose and fell. Rats were seen running in panicked packs in broad daylight. Chickens refused to eat. During the evening of July 27 and the early morning hours of July 28, people reported flashes of colored light and roaring fireballs. Still, at 3:42 a.m. most people were sleeping quietly when the earthquake struck. 

Tangshan earthquake 1976: The main tremor and aftershocks

At nearly 3:42 in the morning (local time), the first shock hit approximately 12 km under the southern part of Tangshan. The magnitude was initially estimated at around 8.1, subsequently recalculated to be 7.6 on the standard Mw scale. The second mainshock, with a magnitude 7.0 Mw, or 7.4 Ms, struck that afternoon at 18:45 near Luanhsien (Luanxian), about 70 km to the east-northeast, just south of the northeastern end of the Tangshan fault. 

Following the second shock, a long sequence of aftershocks followed, with 12 tremors measuring 6.0 or greater. The first of these struck just three and a half hours after the initial shock, at 7:17, at the southern end of Tangshan fault, near Ninghe with a magnitude of 6.2 Ms . Another significant aftershock (Ms 6.9) occurred in November near Ninghe. 

Tangshan earthquake 1976: Death toll and damage 

Being one of the most destructive earthquakes in world history, the 1976 Tangshan earthquake claimed more than 2 lakh lives. Considering that China was in between a major political change, the government was believed to have provided false information regarding the death toll. According to the official statement from the seismological department, 2,42,000 people were killed and as many as 7,00,000 were injured. On the other hand, other resources claimed causalities as high as 6,50,000.

As almost everyone was asleep when the earthquake struck, it led to a significantly greater loss of life. The earthquake lasted for 23 seconds and flattened almost 90 per cent of buildings in Tangshan. 

Not just tremors, the earthquake also resulted in several fire incidents and leak of poisonous gases from several plants. Water and electricity were cut off, and rail and road access to the city was destroyed.

Tangshan earthquake 1976: What followed 

A day after the violent earthquake, helicopters and planes began dropping food and medicine into the city. Some 100,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army were ordered to Tangshan, and many had to march on foot from Jinzhou, a distance of more than 180 miles. Since the Chinese government was ill-prepared for such a disaster, nearly 30,000 medical personnel were called in, along with 30,000 construction workers.

The Chinese government, boasting self-sufficiency, had refused all offers of foreign relief aid. In the crucial first week after the crisis, many died from lack of medical care. 

Troops and relief workers lacked the kind of heavy rescue training necessary to efficiently pull survivors from the rubble. Looting was also epidemic. More than 160,000 families were left homeless, and more than 4,000 children were orphaned.

Also Read | 5.1-magnitude quake jolts Japan

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