The Tangshan Earthquake – 1976

For China, 1976 was a year of political upheaval and power struggles.

For Tangshan, an industrial city of over a million people in the Hailan coal basin of Hopei Province, it was a year of catastrophe, to July, a scientist at the State Seismological Bureau had predicted that the Tangshan region would suffer a significant earthquake around the end of the month. Although officials in Qing Long county risked their careers by organizing precautions, the city of Tangshan was considered to be in a low-risk area.

The earthquake, put by some sources as high as magnitude 8.3 and followed by a 7.1 aftershock, struck at 04.00 when most of the city’s residents were sleeping. There had been no warning foreshock, to about 15 seconds, most of the city’s houses and apartment docks (very few of which were built to withstand earthquakes) collapsed, trapping survivors in the ruins. Bridges, stations and factories were also destroyed. Tremors were felt as far away as Beijing, whose residents were urged to stay in the city’s open spaces.

In Tangshan, where casualties included coalminers buried alive and about 2,000 people in the city’s largest hospital, survivors and rescue workers from the People’s liberation Army dug in the nibble, responding to the desperate cries of those beneath the wreckage. Tents were home for the survivors until they were moved to winter shelter.

The official line was that ‘any grave natural disaster can be overcome with the guidance of Chairman Mao’ and the Chinese government refused international aid, claiming there was ample food and medical supplies. Rebuilding began almost immediately. The new city is again home to more than a million and has been awarded the title ‘Brave City of China’.

When: July 26 1975

Where: Tangshan, Hopei, China

Death toll: The official figure was 242,419, but it is thought to be much higher, possibly around 700,000.

You should know: There is a traditional belief that the ‘Year of the Dragon’, which comes round once every 12 years, augurs ill. This one was later named the ‘Curse of 1976’.

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