Haiyuan Earthquake (1920): Eyewitness Accounts, Deaths, and Other Facts
An earthquake measuring 8.6 on the Richter scale in Haiyuan county China earthquake province killed 180,000 people on December 16, 1920. Another 20,000 people lost their homes to the freezing cold.
The 1920 Haiyuan earthquake was the strongest and deadliest the world had ever experienced. This seismic disaster, of epic proportions and dramatic relief changes, can be compared to the great Chilean earthquake of 1960, when “the mountains moved,” as the survivors put it.
More than 200,000 people died in the Haiyuan earthquake. Gaping cracks opened up in the soil, cities were destroyed to the last brick, even traces of streets disappeared, powerful strata of rock began to literally flow down the slopes, crawling over each other, forming hills up to 30 meters high, and absorbing entire villages. Above the newly formed hills, the rivers were flooded with lakes.
The affected area was at the center of the fertile dust brought by winds from the Gobi Desert and the Siberian steppes since the early Quaternary and accumulated in the huge loess strata on the lands of eastern China. Fertile soils led to high population densities in these areas, which can also explain a large number of casualties during the Chinese earthquake.
In addition to the devastation caused by the Haiyuan county, China earthquake, and the collapses, the situation was exacerbated by the landslides it provoked. Hansu is a mountainous region, and there are many caves with deposits of loses, very fine and mobile sand. When the Haiyuan earthquake of 1920 set these layers in motion, they rushed down the mountainsides like streams of water, carrying with them heavy blocks of stone and giant chunks of peat and turf.
That night, it was the sand that proved to be the main culprit for the loss of life. Not only did the thicknesses of sand move in hills, burying people in the open, but they also mauled tens of thousands of cave dwellers alive (in that area, people often dug their homes into the loose hillsides, which is easier and disproportionately cheaper than building an ordinary house).
Only in one capacious cave was the famous Muslim prophet Ma the Blessed and three hundred of his followers cut off from the world and condemned to a slow, agonizing death. For a month the relatives and coreligionists of the dead had been digging up the cover, but all their efforts were in vain.
The earthquake occurred just as night fell, and the cold forced almost the entire population to take shelter. At 7:30 p.m. a dull noise was heard coming from the north.
Here is what one missionary recounts of his personal experience:
“When I heard the noise, I thought it was an earthquake, so I put out the lamp and ran out of the house. But as soon as I got to the street, I felt a terrible blow to my back. With my legs spread wide apart, like a drunkard trying to keep his balance, I felt the strong rotational motion of the earth beneath me; the next day, all the few statues that had not fallen from their pedestals found themselves turned to face the wall.
This first and most violent tremor lasted two minutes, and it was followed so quickly by five or six others that it was almost impossible to separate them one from the other.
There is, therefore, no wonder that my brethren think that there was only one long shaking that lasted for 6 to 8 minutes: the shocks were one after another every few seconds, accompanied by a deafening roar of crashing buildings, shouts of people and roars of animals coming from under the debris. The screams were horrible to hear. They will never be forgotten!
After this most terrible tremor the shaking continued until after midnight, at first every 10-15 minutes, then 15-20, and finally, 20-25, accompanied by a strong underground rumbling. After midnight, the shocks still continued, but gradually weakened and at intervals of 30-40 minutes. About 3-4 in the morning an unusually strong wind rose, and the next day behind an ominous gray-blue veil of fog it was impossible to distinguish even the mountains rising opposite…”.
The resulting Kansu China landslide of 1920 was even more tremendous than those later in Chile. In what became known as Death Valley, seven gigantic landslides sliced the mountainsides and buried farms and villages beneath them.
The Legendary House That Traveled 800 Meters and Remained Intact
One house caught in a Kansu China landslide in 1920 was carried on a moving mass of rock and somehow miraculously remained on the surface. So it traveled more than 800 meters downstream of the avalanche until two other Kansu China landslides in 1920, moving from the sides, crossed its path and forced it to change direction. Then the avalanche traveled down a small side valley and climbed up it for almost a whole kilometer.
At dawn, a monstrous picture opened up before them: the mountains had “shifted,” and they no longer recognized their native places. Nearby, a 400-meter-long stretch of road along with the tall poplars that bordered it had moved down a thousand and a half meters, virtually unchanged. The trees stood along the road as before. But elsewhere, lakes appeared instead of hills, and valleys turned into hills. This is the worst disaster of the 1920s. The Haiyuan earthquake (1920) damage cost is hard to calculate. We sincerely hope that such a tragedy will not happen again in China.