Tangshan Earthquake – China – July 28, 1976

Information about this earthquake was slow in coming because the Chinese authorities did not want to create widespread fear. The official death toll was 250,000 but many experts think that the total was much greater.

Early in the morning of July 28, 1976, China experienced its deadliest earthquake in four hundred years. It was probably the worst earthquake in history if we also take account of the damage to property. The official death toll was 250,000, and three times that number of people were injured. Many experts say that the death toll was far greater than the official number. The earthquake came in two waves, an early morning quake with a strength of 8.2 on the Richter Scale and an aftershock that arrived later in the day with a strength of 7.9. Both waves were individually greater than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Because it happened less than 150 miles from Beijing, the nation’s authorities, fearing another earthquake, told people to stay out of doors. Six million slept outside in temporary shelters for about two weeks.

The epicenter of the earthquake was directly beneath the city of Tangshan so the destruction was total. Those who were not immediately crushed by collapsing homes were thrown six feet into the air and spun around. Some writers have compared the damage to that caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. There was widespread subsidence and this had far-reaching effects on the complex railway system underground as the ground around the city collapsed on to the open spaces below.

The railways that reached the city through the underground tunnels served the main industrial areas of the country, not just those of Tangshan. As a result, much of the nation’s industrial activity was shut down. It took a long time for these railway yards and the dead bodies among them to be cleared and the transportation system restored to normal working conditions.

Thousands of holes appeared in the ground everywhere outside the city limits and the earth had split open for several feet in some places. Surface railway tracks buckled and fences were displaced by as much as five feet. Crops and trees were uprooted and blown over to one side. Traditionally, China is very reluctant to report on events as devastating as this one was, partly because of superstitions that still linger and attribute all kinds of political explanations for what are really natural events. There was another reason too for their reluctance to report the event. Chinese authorities had been making extravagant claims about their ability to predict earthquakes and they did not work for this big event. Such a failure does not necessarily discount their ability to predict. It was well known, especially after the research of a Japanese geologist, that the behavior of animals of all kinds is a good indicator of an approaching quake. They always run away from the earthquake site before the quake occurs. This researcher also discovered that bright lights are a frequent accompaniment of an earthquake and it seems that animals can detect these lights more quickly than humans.

Tangshan is a city of, or was before this event, over one million people. It is a large industrial centre and so during the immediate aftermath of the earthquake huge numbers of people were rushed to the scene, medical and emergency staff included, to try to bring temporary help and protection to the many people affected. There were 252,000 killed and another 164,000 injured in various ways. All together there were 125 aftershocks in this general area, with the strongest of these occurring sixteen hours after the initial earthquake. No information was released to the public because the government of China wondered if the city should be abandoned. Later it was revealed that it took three years for the government to decide to rebuild the city.

However, many years passed before adequate accommodation was available for the people of Tangshan. For example, in 1985, nine years after the earthquake, only 100,000 people had been re-housed. One of the first decisions of the new city’s administration, and one of the reasons for the slow recovery, was the decision to reassess the building code and environmental care arrangements. The previous standards were totally inadequate for protection against another earthquake of the same magnitude.

The overall damage to the city was one hundred percent destruction of all homes and 80 percent destruction of industrial buildings. The damage to these various buildings included collapsed bridges, bent railway tracks, overturned trains, damaged highways, toppled chimneys, broken pipelines, and the cracking of dams. Fortunately, there were no severe occasions of flooding, but liquefaction occurred and it made it almost impossible to move heavy vehicles across the ground.

Tangshan is a center for coal mining, iron, and steel production, and for the manufacture of cement, so the amount of transportation that is conducted there to and from the city is very great. It is a major railway center and there were more than twenty of these trains passing through the city at the time of the earthquake. Several were overturned and the rest damaged and derailed. Beneath the city tens of thousands of coal miners were at work on the night shift. Fortunately, all of them returned safely to the surface.

China is part of the Eurasian Tectonic Plate and over geological time it was steadily pressured westward by the Pacific Plate, the Philippine Plate and the Australian Plate. All three of these tectonic plates are being sub ducted underneath the Eurasian Plate. The subduction zone for the Philippine Plate includes a deep ocean trench between Taiwan and Japan and a similar zone for the Pacific Plate includes the Japan and the Kurile trenches.

These deep trenches, and the fact that so many plates are pushing against the China mainland and moving underneath, are the reasons for the many earthquake warnings and earthquake events that are part of Chinese life. The main reason for this earthquake being as destructive as it was is simply the poor quality of the buildings. They were not built to withstand an earthquake of the strength of that which occurred in 1976.

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