/ 14 May 2008

Nearly 15 000 dead in China quake

The toll from China’s deadliest earthquake in decades climbed to nearly 15 000 on Wednesday as thousands of troops, firefighters and common civilians battled to save thousands of people buried under rubble and mud.

The toll had reached 14 866 by Wednesday afternoon, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Weary rescuers pulled at tangled chunks of buildings and peered into crevices for signs of life after Monday’s 7,9-magnitude quake crumpled homes, schools and hospitals.

The government sent 50 000 troops to south-western Sichuan province to dig for victims.

The toll is likely to rise steeply after state media said 19 000 people were buried in the province’s Mianyang area alone.

Amid the overwhelming gloom, there were also moments of joy. In Mianzhu, where thousands have already been confirmed dead, about 500 people were pulled out alive from crushed buildings.

Rescuers in Hanwang, a village in Mianzhu, sustained a girl with food and water as they struggled to free her from the ruins of a flattened four-storey school building.

An eight-month-pregnant woman and her mother, trapped for two days under an apartment building in Dujiangyan, were freed by firefighters and taken to hospital.

”We are very happy. We have been standing here shouting for two days,” said Pan Jianjun, a relative. ”But there are still three more people in there making sounds.”

Officials have also warned of dangers from increased strain on local dams, as well as mudslides on the region’s brittle hillsides.

On the edge of Mianyang city, people roamed around a sports ground filled with the homeless, holding cardboard signs with the names of relatives in hopes of information. Most were from the nearby rural county of Beichuan, one of the worst-hit areas.

”They have said nothing about what’s going to happen to us. This is just a temporary place. I don’t know when or if we’ll be able to go home,” said Hu Luobing, from a Beichuan village where she said everything had been destroyed.

She was leaving her daughter in the shelter of the sports ground, where about 10 000 Beichuan survivors had gathered, to look for clothes.

Others were seeking food and relief from the rain.

Pictures from Beichuan, a hilly area that rescuers have struggled to reach, showed near-total devastation. Survivors lay alongside the dead in the open air, surrounded by buildings reduced to mangled slabs of concrete.

Food and shelter

Central authorities have ordered stricken areas to ensure food supplies and price stability, but some Chinese news reports described price rises and shortages.

The extent of destruction in many towns across the mountainous area suggested searchers would find many more bodies than survivors among the toppled buildings.

Rain has frustrated rescuers’ efforts to get to some areas and more rain is forecast for coming days, but the weather cleared on Wednesday afternoon.

State media reported devastation in villages near the epicentre in Wenchuan, a remote county cut off by landslides about 100km north-west of Chengdu. About 60 000 people were unaccounted for across Wenchuan, authorities said.

In Yingxiu town, only 2 300 of its 10 000 residents were accounted for, Xinhua reported.

A cordon of soldiers blocked anguished parents from a collapsed building at Xindian primary school in Dujiangyan, where about 200 children and staff were buried.

A nearby sign told relatives to search for their children at the local morgue.

Premier’s appeal

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who has been in Sichuan making emotional appeals to urge on workers and visiting crying, orphaned children, was in Beichuan by midday.

”Your pain is our pain,” he said on state television. He stood amid a cluster of residents, some of whom wiped away tears. ”Saving people’s lives is the most important task.”

Beichuan county alone was in urgent need of 50 000 tents, 200 000 blankets and 300 000 coats, as well as drinking water and medicine, Xinhua said.

The quake, the worst to hit China since 1976 when up to 300 000 died, has drowned out upbeat government propaganda three months ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games.

It has also muffled criticism from abroad over recent unrest in Tibet, with images of the human tragedy and heroic rescue efforts spurring offers of aid and an outpouring of sympathy.

A Russian transport plane carrying 30 tonnes of relief supplies arrived in Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu, on Wednesday, the first batch of international aid to reach China.

The Chinese Communist Party’s swift action to mobilise a massive rescue force has made a jarring comparison with that of Burma, whose government’s slow and disorganised response to a devastating cyclone has infuriated aid and rights groups.

China’s stock market initially weakened after the quake, partly on fears it could add to inflation that is already at a 12-year high, but the Shanghai stock index ended 2,7% higher on Wednesday as fears of the long-term impact ebbed.

Industrial production growth released on Wednesday showed China’s busy factories moving down a gear, and economists said output growth could fade further in coming months, partly due to the impact of the Sichuan quake.

Leading disaster-modelling firm AIR Worldwide said the cost of the quake is likely to exceed $20-billion. — Reuters