Worst modern earthquake - HISTORY
Year
1976

Worst modern earthquake

At 3:42 a.m., an earthquake measuring between 7.8 and 8.2 magnitude on the Richter scale flattens Tangshan, a Chinese industrial city with a population of about one million people. As almost everyone was asleep in their beds, instead of outside in the relative safety of the streets, the quake was especially costly in terms of human life. An estimated 242,000 people in Tangshan and surrounding areas were killed, making the earthquake one of the deadliest in recorded history, surpassed only by the 300,000 who died in the Calcutta earthquake in 1737, and the 830,000 thought to have perished in China’s Shaanxi province in 1556.

Caught between the Indian and Pacific plates, China has been a very active location for earthquakes throughout history. Earthquakes have also played a significant part in China’s culture and science, and the Chinese were the first to develop functioning seismometers. The area of northern China hit by the Tangshan earthquake is particularly prone to the westward movement of the Pacific plate.

In the days preceding the earthquake, people began to notice strange phenomena in and around Tangshan. Well-water levels rose and fell. Rats were seen running in panicked packs in broad daylight. Chickens refused to eat. During the evening of July 27 and the early morning hours of July 28, people reported flashes of colored light and roaring fireballs. Still, at 3:42 a.m. most people were sleeping quietly when the earthquake struck. It lasted for 23 seconds and leveled 90 percent of Tangshan’s buildings. At least a quarter-of-a-million people were killed and 160,000 others injured. The earthquake came during the heat of midsummer, and many stunned survivors crawled out of their ruined houses naked, covered only in dust and blood. The earthquake started fires and ignited explosives and poisonous gases in Tangshan’s factories. Water and electricity were cut off, and rail and road access to the city was destroyed.

The Chinese government was ill-prepared for a disaster of this scale. The day following the quake, helicopters and planes began dropping food and medicine into the city. Some 100,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army were ordered to Tangshan, and many had to march on foot from Jinzhou, a distance of more than 180 miles. About 30,000 medical personnel were called in, along with 30,000 construction workers. The Chinese government, boasting self-sufficiency, refused all offers of foreign relief aid. In the crucial first week after the crisis, many died from lack of medical care. Troops and relief workers lacked the kind of heavy rescue training necessary to efficiently pull survivors from the rubble. Looting was also epidemic. More than 160,000 families were left homeless, and more than 4,000 children were orphaned.

Tangshan was eventually rebuilt with adequate earthquake precautions. Today, nearly two million people live there. There is speculation that the death toll from the 1976 quake was much higher than the official Chinese government figure of 242,000. Some Chinese sources have spoken privately of more than 500,000 deaths.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Rudy Vallée is born

Before the electronic microphone became commonplace in the 1920s, the one quality that was required of every professional singer in every musical genre was a talent for vocal projection—i.e., the ability to make oneself heard over one’s instrumental accompaniment in a live or a ...read more

Bonus Marchers evicted by U.S. Army

During the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover orders the U.S. Army under General Douglas MacArthur to evict by force the Bonus Marchers from the nation’s capital.Two months before, the so-called “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” a group of some 1,000 World War I veterans ...read more

14th Amendment adopted

Following its ratification by the necessary three-quarters of U.S. states, the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing to African Americans citizenship and all its privileges, is officially adopted into the U.S. Constitution.Two years after the Civil War, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 ...read more

Hamburg suffers a firestorm

On this day in 1943, the worst British bombing raid on Hamburg so far virtually sets the city on fire, killing 42,000 German civilians.On July 24, British bombers launched Operation Gomorrah, repeated bombing raids against Hamburg and its industrial and munitions plants. Sortie ...read more

Johnson announces more troops to Vietnam

President Lyndon B. Johnson announces that he has ordered an increase in U.S. military forces in Vietnam, from the present 75,000 to 125,000. Johnson also said that he would order additional increases if necessary. He pointed out that to fill the increase in military manpower ...read more

Dennis Martinez pitches perfect game

On this day in 1991, Dennis Martinez of the Montreal Expos pitches a perfect game to lead his team to a 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Martinez was the first Latino ever to pitch a perfect game.When he debuted with the Baltimore Orioles in 1976 at age 21, Martinez, ...read more

Indian agent James McLaughlin dies

Best known today for his inadvertent role in the death of Sitting Bull, the prominent Indian agent James McLaughlin dies in Washington, D.C.Unlike some Indian agents of the later 19th century, McLaughlin genuinely liked and respected his charges. His wife was half Sioux, and she ...read more

Animal House released

On this day in 1978, National Lampoon’s Animal House, a movie spoof about 1960s college fraternities starring John Belushi, opens in U.S. theaters. Produced with an estimated budget of $3 million, Animal House became a huge, multi-million-dollar box-office hit, spawned a slew of ...read more

Plane crashes into Empire State Building

A United States military plane crashes into the Empire State Building on this day in 1945, killing 14 people. The freak accident was caused by heavy fog.The B-25 Mitchell bomber, with two pilots and one passenger aboard, was flying from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to LaGuardia ...read more

Battle of Ezra Church begins

On this day in 1864, at the Battle of Ezra Church, Georgia, Confederates under General John Bell Hood make a third attempt to break General William T. Sherman’s hold on Atlanta. Like the first two, this attack failed, destroying the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s offensive ...read more

U.S. Senate approves United Nations charter

In a ringing declaration indicating that America’s pre-World War II isolation was truly at an end, the U.S. Senate approves the charter establishing the United Nations. In the years to come, the United Nations would be the scene of some of the most memorable Cold War ...read more

Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia

On July 28, 1914, one month to the day after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were killed by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia, effectively beginning the First World War.Threatened by Serbian ambition in the tumultuous ...read more