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Chinese city in fear after quake warning

Panicked residents prepared for another night out in the open in Chengdu, a Chinese city gripped by fear over warnings of a powerful quake aftershock.

world Updated: May 20, 2008 13:47 IST

Panicked residents lined up on Tuesday to buy camping gear as they prepared for another night out in the open in Chengdu, a Chinese city gripped by fear over warnings of a powerful quake aftershock.

Hundreds of thousands had abruptly left their homes the evening before when local TV said a quake of up to magnitude 7.0 might hit, and by daybreak the hunt was on for tents to make the following night slightly more comfortable.

Across Chengdu, the modern capital of Sichuan province with a population of more than 11 million people, residents said they were terrified about the tremor destroying their homes, and many businesses closed for the day.

Even old warriors admitted they were upset by the prospect of another tremor after last week's earthquake in Sichuan killed tens of thousands of people and flattened entire cities, some of them within 50 kilometres (30 miles) of Chengdu.

"We live on the third floor in a rather old apartment building, so we thought we better stay out last night," said Luo Zhiming, a 72-year-old former soldier in the People's Liberation Army, who served in Tibet in the 1950s.

He had used the skills he learned as an infantryman half a century ago to build a solid tent from two sheets of plastic in the park across from his home.

All around him were other makeshift dwellings, as the entire community had moved outside.

"Basically all our neighbours are camping," said 25-year-old Yuan Limei, eating a bowl of instant noodles in front of the one-man tent in which she had spent the night with her husband and her mother-in-law.

"I guess most of us will do the same tonight. As for tomorrow, we'll have to wait and see what happened."
However Yuan was one of the lucky ones to have a tent.

Shortly before noon, a sports equipment store in the centre of the city was the only place left rumoured to still have stocks of tents available but it, too, closed its shutters after it was sold out.

"It makes me angry to see people jumping the queue," said 28-year-old Curtis Luo, who had been waiting in line for three hours. "We're all extremely afraid of the earthquake."

Just as the hundreds of customers outside the shop realised they had been waiting in vain, a slight drizzle began falling from the grey sky. Most kept waiting as if they could wish the tents into existence.

"We slept outside in a park last night," said Li Li, a 30-year-old student. "We made our own tent from blankets and bedding. But now it's raining and we'd been hoping to get a real tent."

Tianfu Square in the centre of the city was more crowded than usual Tuesday morning, as office clerks and shop assistants realised they had been given a day off because the buildings they worked in had been closed.

Some on the square were listening to radio via their mobile phones, hoping for news about the quake many still expected.

"Anyone who says he is not afraid is just kidding," said Zhu Yuejin, a 23-year-old saleswoman who spent the night in a car.
Although the warning of another imminent tremor sent more people out on to the streets, the city had been gripped by fear since last Monday.

Chengdu did not suffer major damage in the May 12 quake, which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale, but the city shook violently then and it has since been hit by many aftershocks.

City Tower, a 33-story structure in the centre of Chengdu, was on Tuesday closed for the day, like most other major office buildings.

"I've sent my wife and two-year-old daughter out of town," said Zhang Jiqing, the building's lone 25-year-old receptionist.
When the aftershock warning reached the city's West China Hospital Monday, doctors and nurses tried to calm down the nearly 4,000 patients, many of them horribly injured and traumatised by last week's catastrophe.

"We explained to them that there was no danger, since the building can withstand a quake of up to 8.0 on the Richter scale," said Jiang Xianfei, a hospital spokesman.

"But some still insisted on sleeping outside, and we arranged to set up special tents for them," he said, adding about 20 patients and their relatives opted to go outdoors.