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China moves quickly in quake zone

The country's deadliest quake in three decades hit central China Monday.

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In addition to the thousands of soldiers and police dispatched to the epicenter in Wenchuan county, emergency medical teams were sent from major cities on the east coast to the quake zone.

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Their departure displayed a speed of official response that critics said had been lacking during China's last natural disaster, blizzards that gripped the south of the country last January.

A magnitude of 7.8

The epicenter of Monday's 7.8-magnitude earthquake was in Sichuan, about 57 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Chengdu. It hit in the middle of the afternoon – when classes and offices were full.

At one school about 60 miles from the epicenter, nearly 900 students were trapped under rubble, the Associated Press reported, citing Chinese state media. At least seven other schools in the region had collapsed, according to Xinhua, as well as chemical plants and at least one hospital.

As many as 10,000 in Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County were feared injured and 80 percent of the buildings there had been destroyed, Xinhua reported. There had been more than 300 aftershocks, state television said.

Nightfall, severed communications, and blocked roads have hampered rescue efforts. The overall death toll from this earthquake – with tremors reaching as far away as Pakistan, Vietnam and Thailand – is expected to rise in coming days.

"Anything greater than [a magnitude of] 7 is very significant," says Mike Haggerty, a seismologist at the Weston Observatory at Boston College in Weston, Mass. "The magnitude is 7.8, and that's the exactly the same magnitude of the 1976 Tangshen earthquake." About 250,000 people died in that natural disaster thirty years ago.

The key difference between the quakes on Monday and in 1976 was location, says Mr. Musson, the seismologist.

"The 1976 earthquake occurred extremely close to Tangshan. The city was really sitting on top of the fault.... The good aspect is that this occurred in a remote area. The bad aspect is the population has increased," he says.

The shallowness of Monday's earthquake will also contribute to the extent of the damage, Mr. Haggerty warns.

Peter Smith contributed from Boston. Wire material was also used.