Nineteen UK tourists who were visiting a region in China when a massive earthquake struck have been found safe, the British ambassador says.

Fourteen were flown from the Wolong area in Sichuan, famed for its panda reserve, to Chengdu, with five due to fly out later, Sir William Ehrman said.

He said they were “safe and well” and consular officials were looking after them in the provincial capital.

The quake killed more than 15,000 people, with 26,000 still trapped.

The British tourists were visiting the panda reserve on Monday when the quake struck.

Contact was lost with them, raising fears they had been injured in the quake which left villages flattened. Other British tourists have been accounted for.

Panda ‘sense’

Tourist Barry Jackson said the tour party had been waiting for a glimpse of a giant panda when the quake struck.

“Then suddenly we had this horrendous noise which is – well, you can’t describe what it’s like – it’s like a huge, huge noise and the land’s shaking beneath you and the first thing that we all thought to do, was to run.”

Fellow traveller Diane Etkins said the pandas were being “really lazy, just eating bamboo” but then they suddenly started “parading round their pen”.

“Looking back, they must have sensed something was wrong.”

Speaking in a hotel, Ms Etkins praised the operation to evacuate the area: “The devastation…in that area that we were in is horrendous and for them to have got us out so quickly is amazing”.

Tourist Liz Cullen rang her worried sister in the UK about 0400 BST on Thursday – the first contact since Sunday.

“I went between hope and despair, and certainly for most of the time I was more concerned particularly about my mum not knowing whether I was alive or dead and probably thinking I was dead.

“I’d have given anything to be able to contact her and say, ‘look, this has happened, the situation here isn’t ideal, but we’re alive and well’.”

Rolling boulders

Sir William said on Thursday “it was a great relief” to get the tourists to safety.

He said he had seen many “harrowing sights” during the past few days.

“One of the stories I keep hearing is how, in the mountainous areas, vast boulders, – many the size of houses – were rolling down the slopes all over the place. That happened to the British tourists in the panda reserve, but mercifully none were struck.”

He thanking the Chengdu authorities for their help with the tourists, who were flown by helicopter to Chengdu.

Holiday firm Kuoni said the tourists were customers of the Travel Collection company, one of Kuoni’s subsidiaries, and had been accompanied by a local guide and driver.

“Two Kuoni UK staff are at the hotel,” a spokesman said.

“They will be working with Consular staff and the British ambassador to offer all possible assistance and support and will be making arrangements for their safe return to the UK.

“We are so very relieved that our group are safe and we would like to send our deepest thanks to all involved in their rescue.”

China’s tourism agency told news agency Xinhua as of Wednesday evening it was aware of 893 foreign tourists stranded in the quake region – although the nationalities were not given.

The number of domestic tourists stranded was 2,601.

The Foreign Office said anyone in the UK who is concerned about friends or relatives who may be in China should call its helpline on 020 7008 0000.

It has advised against all but essential travel to Sichuan province.