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World - Asia/Pacific

Death toll rising in northern India earthquake

March 29, 1999
Web posted at: 11:25 a.m. EST (1625 GMT)

CHAMOLI, India (CNN) -- The strongest earthquake to hit a quake-prone region of India this century rumbled through the Himalayan foothills before dawn Monday, killing at least 87 people.

India's seismological department said the quake registered a magnitude of 6.8, strong enough to be labeled "severe and damaging." The tremor lasted 40 seconds, and aftershocks continued throughout the day.

"We were watching a Hindi movie on television when chairs, wardrobes and beds started toppling over," said Uma Kant Pawar, district manager of the town of Chamoli, near the quake's epicenter. "Before we could realize what was happening, the electricity went off and the whole area plunged into darkness."

The quake's center was in a remote region of the Kumaon hills in the northern state Uttar Pradesh, about 185 miles (295 kilometers) northeast of New Delhi.

Rescue efforts were hampered by a breakdown of communications links and landslides that buried some roads into the region. But debris was being cleared from those roads, and some aid was flown in via helicopter.

Still, many people in the area were without water, food and electricity Monday.

Officials in Chamoli said about 170 houses had collapsed there, and the walls of a local hospital caved in. Fifty-eight of the dead were found in Chamoli, and another 27 in neighboring Rudraprayag. The quake's effects were felt as far away as New Delhi.

Officials expect the death toll to rise, but it is unlikely to approach the 1,600 people killed by a 1991 quake in the Uttarkashi region of Uttar Pradesh. That quake measured 6.6 on the Richter scale.

"Casualties would be relatively low because the houses had tin roofs, unlike Uttarkashi, where roofs were made of rocks and cement," said an official in Lucknow, the state capital.

Earthquakes are relatively common in Uttar Pradesh because of the gradual shifting of tectonic plates beneath the geologically young Himalayan range.

"The Indian plate is moving in the north and northeast direction and is colliding with the Tibetan plate, with a thrust developing at the foothills of Uttar Pradesh," said S.K. Srivastava, a senior official at the Indian Meteorological Department.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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