Residents in China's southwestern Sicuan province huddled outdoors Saturday night in a town near the epicentre of a powerful earthquake that struck earlier in the day, leaving at least 180 people dead and more than 11,000 injured, nearly five years after a devastating quake wreaked widespread damage across the region.

Saturday morning's earthquake triggered landslides and disrupted phone and power connections in mountainous Lushan county. The village of Longmen was hit particularly hard, with authorities saying nearly all the buildings there had been destroyed in a frightening minute-long shaking.

In nearby Ya'an town, where aftershocks could be felt nearly 20 hours after the quake, residents sat in groups outside convenience stores watching the news on television sets. Wang Xing, 14, sat with her family on chairs by the roadside in the cool night air, a large blanket on her lap.

Wang and her relatives said they planned to spend the night in their cars. "We don't feel safe sleeping at home tonight," she said, adding the quake left tears on the walls of her family's house. "It was very scary when it happened," she said. "I ran out of my bed and out of the house. I didn't even have my shoes on."

Rescuers turned the square outside the Lushan County Hospital into a triage centre, where medical personnel bandaged bleeding victims, according to footage on China Central Television. Rescuers dynamited boulders that had fallen across roads to reach Longmen and other damaged areas lying farther up the mountain valleys, state media reported.

The China Earthquake Administration said at least 156 people had died, including 96 in Lushan. In the jurisdiction of Ya'an, which administers Lushan, 19 people were reported missing and more than 5,500 people were injured, the administration said.

The quake — measured by the earthquake administration at magnitude-7.0 and by the U.S. Geological Survey at 6.6 — struck the steep hills of Lushan county shortly after 8 a.m., when many people were at home, sleeping or having breakfast. People in their underwear and wrapped in blankets ran into the streets of Ya'an and even the provincial capital of Chengdu, 115 kilometres east of Lushan, according to photos, video and accounts posted online.

Canada offers aid

Here is the message sent to China from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino:

On behalf of all Canadians, we extend our deepest sympathies to those affected by the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, China. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of China, especially those who have lost family members or friends. We also wish those injured in this disaster a speedy recovery. Canada stands ready to assist China if requested.

The Embassy of Canada in Beijing and the Consulate General in Chongqing are working with Chinese authorities to determine whether any Canadians have been injured in the earthquake. To date, we have not received any reports that Canadians have been affected, although officials in Ottawa, Beijing and Chongqing stand ready to provide consular assistance.

Canadian citizens in the region requiring emergency consular assistance should call the Consulate General of Canada in Chongqing at +86 23 6373 8007 or Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada's Emergency Operations Centre collect at +1 613 996 8885, or send an email to

The quake's shallow depth, less than 13 kilometres, likely magnified the impact.

Lushan reported the most deaths, but there was concern that casualties in neighbouring Baoxing county might have been under-reported because of inaccessibility after roads were blocked and power and phone services cut off.

As the region went into the first night after the quake, rain started to fall, slowing rescue work. Forecasts called for more rain in the next several days, and the China Meteorological Administration warned of possible landslides and other geological disasters.

Tens of thousands of people moved into tents or cars, unable to return home or too afraid to go back as aftershocks continued to jolt the region.

Lushan, where the quake struck, lies where the fertile Sichuan plain meets foothills that eventually rise to the Tibetan plateau and sits atop the Longmenshan fault. It was along that fault line that a devastating magnitude-7.9 quake struck on May 12, 2008, leaving more than 90,000 people dead or missing and presumed dead in one of the worst natural disasters to strike China in recent decades.

"It was just like May 12," Liu Xi, a writer in Ya'an city, who was jolted awake by Saturday's quake, said via a private message on his account on Sina Corporation's Twitter-like Weibo service. "All the home decorations fell at once, and the old house cracked."

The official Xinhua News Agency said the well-known Bifengxia panda preserve, which is near Lushan, 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.


Lushan county in Sichuan province hit by a magnitude-7 earthquake. (Google)

The Chinese Red Cross said it had deployed relief teams with supplies of food, water, medicine and rescue equipment to the disaster areas. Thousands of police and soldiers were mobilized to aid in relief efforts.

A person whose posts to the micro-blogging account "Qingyi Riverside" on Weibo carried a locator geotag for Lushan said many buildings collapsed and that people could spot helicopters hovering above.

The earthquake administration said there had been at least 712 aftershocks, including two of magnitude-5.0 or higher.

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

While rescuers and state media rushed to the disaster scene, China's active social media users filled the information gap, posting photos of people fleeing to streets for safety and of buildings flattened by the quake. They shared information on the availability of phone services, apparently through data services.