/ 15 May 2008

China quake death toll rises to at least 20 000

The death toll from China’s massive earthquake rose to at least 20 000 on Thursday as rescuers struggled to help survivors and hopes faded for a further 25 000 buried under rubble for more than three days.

The Communist Party leadership told officials to ”ensure social stability” as Monday’s 7,9-magnitude quake spawned rumours of chemical spills, fears of dam bursts and scenes of collective desperation.

About 130 000 army and paramilitary troops assisted the search-and-rescue effort in the worst affected Sichuan province, sifting through dozens of towns turned to rubble.

Rescuers in the city of Dujiangyan wrapped corpses dragged from the rubble in tarpaulins and sped them to morgues. They were so busy that a notice outside one collapsed school asked parents to search for missing children in shifts.

Three days after the quake, hopes of pulling survivors from the ruins dimmed and the waves of rescuers appear to be hampered by lack of specialised equipment.

But there were moments of joy and relief. ”Thank you, thank you,” one 22-year-old said after she was eventually pulled to safety, covering her face against the light in Dujiangyan. She had been trapped, unhurt but unable to move, under the ruins of a hospital.

Wanted list

Xinhua news agency quoted the government in the mountainous south-western province of Sichuan as saying the death toll there had risen to more than 19 500. With hundreds of deaths in neighbouring provinces, the overall toll is at least 20 000.

The strains from tens of thousands of homeless were also growing.

”There is enough food but not enough water. We have only had bottled mineral water the past few days, nothing to cook with,” said Wang Yujie, a teacher whose school withstood the quake.

More aid was arriving and efforts at coordination were also improving, with Sichuan setting up a hotline for victims, and ambulances with Beijing licence plates on the roads.

More than 12,5 tonnes of relief goods had been airdropped and scores of helicopters were flying in rescuers and aid.

The Foreign Ministry said quilts, tents, food, satellite phones, medicines and excavators were needed most.

But in some villages near the badly hit area of Beichuan, angry residents complained they had had little to eat and were forced to drink contaminated water.

Many are sleeping outside or in makeshift shelters where the lack of water and blocked toilets have raised fears of disease, but a vice-minister of health, Gao Qiang, said there had been no reports of epidemics.

But new threats emerged from damaged dams.

Minister for Water Resources Chen Lei said such damage was widespread and sounded far from assured in comments put on the ministry website on Thursday.

”Especially in Sichuan province, where there are many dams, damage from the quake is extensive and the hazards are unclear,” Chen said in the speech given to officials a day earlier.

And the minister blamed more than nature for the dangers.

”Because the management systems of hydropower stations are not smooth and information channels are blocked, the extent of their damage is unclear,” Chen said.

Triumphs and disaster

Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist himself, has made emotional appeals from the disaster zone urging on workers and comforting orphaned children. On Thursday he headed for Qingchuan, where landslides had blocked the flow of two rivers.

The disaster area is also home to China’s chief nuclear-weapons research lab in Mianyang, as well as several secretive atomic sites, but no nuclear power stations.

The China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Corporation reported that several of its facilities in Sichuan were damaged.

The report on its website did not mention any radiation leaks. A Western expert with knowledge of the Mianyang lab said it was not likely the facilities were at serious risk.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s standing committee met late on Wednesday to assess the calamity that has thrown a shadow over preparations for the Beijing Olympics in August.

Amid the devastation, there were still small triumphs.

Rescuers reached a 62-year-old man after an all-night search, prompting a round of applause from onlookers, who took pictures with their cellphones.

A teenaged girl was freed from the rubble of her school, but at the cost of both her legs, which doctors had to amputate.

Thirty-three tourists from Britain, the United States and France were airlifted out of a panda reserve, but Xinhua said 893 foreign tourists remained trapped. One German was among the victims, the Foreign Ministry said.

Offers of help were pouring in.

Chinese rushed to blood banks in Beijing, with at least 3 300 people in the capital donating blood in a single day.

China also welcomed supply flights from rival Taiwan and a relief team from Japan to help rebuild after the quake that is the worst to hit China since 1976 when up to 300 000 died. — Reuters