Upper Burma Earthquake Death Toll Rises

Kyaw Phyo Tha The Irrawaddy

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RANGOON—It was before 8 am when Nay Win Myint felt a sudden jolt in his Mandalay cottage. He put down his book to find that his home was shaking.

“It was like an elephant ramming into my house,” said the famous Burmese writer who lives 169 km (105 miles) south from the epicenter of the magnitude 6.8 earthquake that struck Upper Burma on Sunday.

The President’s Office announced on the same day that the quake caused widespread damage and casualties in Mandalay and Sagaing divisions, including three people dead and 29 others hurt. Revised figures now put the death toll at around 12 with more than 60 injured.

“Our family dashed outside [of the house] for their safety. According to my experience, I think the quake was quite strong,” said the 60-year old author.

An official from Myanmar’s Meteorological Department said the quake struck at 7:42 am local time.

In Kyauk Myaung, one of the townships by the epicenter, the damage has been significant. The quake collapsed iron beams, a crane and parts from a half-built bridge into the Irrawaddy River, sinking a barge and other vessels. State media reported that two were dead, 15 injured and four still missing in the township.

A few hours after the disaster, Pe Soe Aung, a resident of Shwebo City in Sagaing Division, was amongst volunteers who rushed to the local hospital to care for victims arriving by ambulance or car.

“There are lots of people who are willing to donate blood if needed. I think there is more than enough blood here,” he said.

Dr. Thet Thet Sein, the district medical officer in Shwebo, a provincial gold-mining settlement 22 km (14 miles) southeast of the epicenter, told The Irrawaddy on Sunday afternoon that 14 people from Kyauk Myaung had been admitted to Shwebo District Hospital at around 9:30 am.

“But six out of the 14 have been referred to Mandalay General Hospital for better treatment as they’ve suffered very badly. Some have internal bleeding, while others have broken ribs or hips,” he explained.

The biggest single death toll was reported by a local administrative officer in Sintku Township—on the Irrawaddy River near the quake’s epicenter—who told The Associated Press that six people had died and another 11 were injured.

He said some of the dead were workers killed when a goldmine collapsed. He spoke on condition of anonymity because local officials are normally not allowed to release information to the media.

Rumors circulated in Rangoon of other collapsed mines trapping workers, but none of the reports could be confirmed.

Pe Soe Aung told The Irrawaddy that there were no fatalities in his native Shwebo City but just some minor damage.

“The diamond buds [uppermost part of a pagoda] from some temples have toppled down,” he said. “Some houses have been partly damaged but no casualties.”

For Kyauk Myaung residents, meanwhile, wide open spaces in front of their houses are where they will sleep tonight for fear of aftershocks.

“After the evening aftershock, no one dared to stay inside,” said Shwebo-based Buddhist monk U Teza, who just came back from Kyauk Myaung a few hours before The Irrawaddy reached him by phone. He leads the Golden Lion Humanitarian Charity Group that transported injured quake survivors to the hospital in Shwebo.

The monk added that there’s a looming fear among Kyauk Myaung residents that they will not be able to stand on their own two feet again after the quake shattered their livelihoods—glazed earthenware production.

“Since most of the kilns have been destroyed, I found that many people wonder how they can make a living in the future,” he said.

Even though state media reported that Vice-President Dr. Sai Mauk Kham visited quake-ravaged regions to meet victims on Sunday afternoon, immediate relief support for people in Kyauk Myaung was nowhere to be seen, according to a Shwebo resident who visited the area on Sunday evening.

“Rumor has it that the President [Thein Sein] is visiting Kyauk Myaung,” he said. “I only found officials were quite busy with preparations to welcome him.”

The earthquake comes just a week ahead of a scheduled visit to Burma by Barack Obama. He will be the first US president to visit the one-time pariah nation, which is emerging from decades of military rule. The quake was felt as far away as the Thai capital Bangkok.

The disaster is the second to strike Burma’s north in three days. On Friday, a tanker train derailed around 128 km (80 miles) north of Shwebo, and at least 25 people were killed when overturned carriages burst into flames as they were trying to skim fuel from them.