Striking around dawn while many locals were at home, the quake collapsed buildings in Jiegu Township, near the epicenter, trapping hundreds under rubble, Huang Limin, deputy secretary-general of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
More than 85 percent of the houses in Jiegu, a town of 100,000 people, were destroyed, Zhuo Huaxia, a prefectural official told Xinhua: "The streets in Jiegu are thronged with panicked, injured people, with many bleeding in the head. Many students are buried under the debris due to building collapse at a vocational school."
With memories of the 2008 earthquake in neighboring Sichuan Province still strong, the government’s response to this disaster will be closely watched, particularly since the quake zone is in a poor area largely inhabited by ethnic Tibetans.
A day’s drive from main airport
By early evening, some rescue teams able to land at the damaged airport in Yushu, in southwestern Qinghai, were trying to deliver the first emergency medical supplies, food, and tents, China Central Television said.
Other teams will have to make their way 18 hours through the mountains by automobile from the capital Xining, in the northeastern part of the province, CCTV said.
"The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, we lack medical equipment, medicine, and medical workers," Zhuo told Xinhua.
The epicenter at Rima Township, 30 miles from Jiegu, is a sparsely populated pastureland, where fewer casualties are likely to be recorded, Zhuo told Xinhua.
Scars from Sichuan quake
In May 2008, 5,335 Chinese students were crushed when their schools collapsed in the 8.0 magnitude Sichuan earthquake, official data showed, sparking widespread public criticism of shoddily built government schools and an outcry over Beijing's reaction to the quake, which many perceived to be insufficient.
Comments on Wednesday to popular social networking site Tianya reflected some Internet users’ concern that the Yushu earthquake be handled differently.
"What have the officials in the earthquake administration have been doing?" asked "jiliganglove." Another Tianya user, nicknamed "shashishajingjie," wrote: "I am not going to donate any money any more … ultimately, the money goes to corrupt officials' pockets."
Repeated telephone calls to Yushu government offices rang unanswered on Wednesday afternoon, and mobile phone numbers obtained for a local rescue crew were busy for hours.
A spokesman with the Qinghai Provincial Emergency Office told Xinhua that 700 soldiers were struggling to clear rubble and save buried people. More than 5,000 additional rescuers, including soldiers and medical workers, were dispatched to Yushu, the Qinghai provincial government said in a news conference, Xinhua said.
CCTV said rescue teams were leaving for Qinghai from Beijing, from Qinghai's neighbors, the Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan Province, and from other airports around the country.
One of China’s poorest provinces
Qinghai is one of China's poorest provinces, contributing less than 0.3 percent of gross domestic product through output worth 96.2 billion yuan ($13.8 billion) in 2008.
Major industries are shepherding, copper, and coal mining, and the production of iron, steel, oil and natural gas.
Zhaxi, a Tibetan student from Yushu studying in at Beijing Nationalities University, told the Monitor that all attempts at communication with his parents, five brothers, and a sister, back home had proved futile on Wednesday.
"I tried everything, but I still couldn't contact them. The situation is very serious over there right now. I don't know what to do. It doesn't make sense for me to go back right now. I have been looking for every single piece of information on Yushu. The only thing I can do right now is to wait," he said over the phone in Beijing.
Zhang Yajun contributed to this report.