/ 13 May 2008

Tens of thousands dead, missing in China

China’s biggest earthquake for a generation left tens of thousands dead, missing or buried under the rubble of crushed communities on Tuesday, plunging the nation into an all-out aid effort.

Troops and rescue teams struggled by air, land and water to reach the areas of south-western China stricken by the huge quake that demolished schools, homes and factories.

Monday’s 7,9-magnitude quake in Sichuan province has killed about 12 000 people so far, according to the Civil Affairs ministry, a figure expected to soar as more details emerge of the staggering devastation.

Television pictures showed shattered buildings, roads split in two, whole mountainsides sheared off and survivors fighting to free themselves from the debris.

Aftershocks continued to pummel the region, causing panic.

China mobilised its 2,3-million-strong armed forces to lead the search-and-rescue effort, but attempts to reach the worst-hit areas were badly disrupted by torrential rain and the sheer scale of the damage.

“The situation is worse than we previously estimated,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said at disaster-relief headquarters in Dujiangyan, a city close to the epicentre.

“At present, we have great difficulties carrying out our rescue work,” he told a crisis meeting of aid workers, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

A team of 1 300 troops and army medics finally made it to Wenchuan county, right at the epicentre, after hiking through rugged terrain, and immediately began searching for survivors and treating the injured.

However, the military was forced to scrap plans to air-drop food and medical supplies to the worst-hit areas because of the bad weather.

The quake struck in the middle of the afternoon when schools, factories and offices were full, contributing to the high toll.

Bodies dug out

It was difficult to assess the extent of the disaster, with Xinhua only to give scattered snapshots.

They include up to 5 000 dead in the district of Beichuan, where 80 % of buildings collapsed, including a school which buried hundreds of pupils and teachers.

“Several thousand” were reported killed or buried under a flattened factory nearby, while over 600 died and 2 300 were buried in Shifang city where there was a major chemical leak.

At least 2 000 people were killed and 4 800 were buried in Mianzhu.

Parts of Dujiangyan looked like it had been hit by an air strike. The air was filled with the sound of sirens. Broken glass and dust were everywhere. A car sat crushed under a concrete pillar.

In driving rain, bodies dug out of the rubble were unceremoniously lined up on the road. An elderly woman lifted up a plastic sheet covering one body, and broke down wailing after recognising her son.

At a ruined school, rescuers pulled out battered bodies and laid them in a row at the front. Some teenagers struggled to break free, others could only cry out for help as grieving parents watched.

The toll included some foreigners. Xinhua reported 37 tourists were killed when a landslide hit their coach, while officials said they also lost contact with 15 visiting Britons.

A freight train including 13 tankers full of petrol derailed and caught fire in Gansu province and burned through the night, forcing 600 people to be evacuated.

World powers, including the United States, the European Union, Russia and Japan rallied round with sympathy and pledges of help, which Beijing said it welcomed.

Authorities announced an initial allocation of 200-million yuan ($29-million) in relief funds.

A national drive was launched for blood donors, state airlines were asked to transport aid and the Red Cross Society of China called for donations.

Analysts warned the quake could drive up food prices and hamper efforts to tame inflation, and stocks closed down in Shanghai.

However, Beijing Olympic officials insisted venues for the summer Games were safe and the Olympic torch continued its odyssey with a relay on Tuesday in the south-east province of Fujian.

The epicentre of the quake was about 93km from Chengdu, a city of more than 12-million people, and 260km from Chongqing and its 300-million people.

It struck at 2.28 pm local time on Monday and rocked skyscrapers up to 1 800km away in cities across China and parts of South-East Asia.

The toll is the highest for a quake in China since 242 000 people perished when the northern city of Tangshan was flattened in 1976. — AFP