The Truth About The Deadly 1976 Tangshan Earthquake

Areas such as the San Andreas Fault, per The Geological Society, are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes as a result of their instability. This spot marks the meeting point of the Pacific Plate and North American Plate. The former is shifting faster than the latter, and the tremendous forces acting beneath the Earth make powerful earthquakes a relatively common occurrence in the region. In 1989, per History, a quake that measured a magnitude of 6.9 struck San Francisco, causing damage of an estimated $5 billion and tragically taking 67 lives.

The decade before this infamous quake, an even more formidable one devastated a Chinese city. Here’s the terrible tale of the Tangshan earthquake of 1976.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the earthquake struck Tangshan in the early hours of the morning on July 28, 1976. It struck a region that wasn’t expecting it at all, per ThoughtCo, and the buildings of the busy city were not designed to withstand such an impact. The disaster was heralded only by strange natural events such as the frenzied behavior of some chickens, weasels and even a goldfish ahead of the tremors. Lights and balls of fire were said to have been seen in the skies, and great booming sounds heard. Nature certainly seemed to be cooking up something frightful, but nobody knew quite what until the quake began.

Tangshan's terrible tragedy

According to ThoughtCo, the earthquake lasted only around 15 seconds, but it measured 7.8 on the magnitude scale. Per Britannica, this is classed as a quake causing widespread damage and deaths, and this one was just slightly short of an 8.0 rating. Of the one million or so residents of the city, per ThoughtCo, almost 250,000 were killed or critically injured.

The city was almost completely destroyed, as were all but one of the roads in and out (the final one was inadvertently blocked for several crucial hours by those desperately trying to bring supplies into the city). That afternoon, an aftershock almost as powerful as the first struck, which undoubtedly resulted in thousands more victims (though, mercifully, it’s estimated that eighty percent of trapped people were brought to safety before this happened).

Per Britannica, this earthquake was one of the worst in recent history. Though the official reported death toll was much lower, it’s estimated that the true death toll may be as high as 655,000. It occurred on what is now known as the Tangshan Fault.

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