China mourns earthquake victims

From tent cities in stricken Sichuan province to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, sirens wailed and millions of Chinese stood for three minutes on Monday to mourn tens of thousands who died in last week’s earthquake.

The moment of grief was observed across the vast country of 1,3-billion people at 2.28pm local time, exactly a week after the 7,9-magnitude quake that ravaged the south-western province.

“I think the three minutes were important because it means that everyone, from the central government down to every individual, is thinking of us. Because this is worse than a war,” said He Ling, a policeman in Pingtong town, which was almost totally wrecked by the earthquake.

Even as the rescuers stopped work, another aftershock rattled the area and set off a small landslide from a nearby cliff.

Troops and medics lined up with bowed heads and a huge Chinese flag flew from a pile of rubble.

The death toll from the quake rose to more than 34 000 on Monday, but thousands remain buried under the rubble and officials expect the final figure to top 50 000.

The government put direct economic losses in Sichuan alone at about 67-billion yuan ($9,6-billion).

Air-raid sirens, as well as car, train and ship horns wailed around the country to mark the one-week anniversary. Flags flew at half-mast and cinemas were ordered to stop showing films for the mourning period.

In Beichuan, another town devastated by the quake, several hundred rescuers bowed their heads and laid wreaths made from twigs and scrap paper pulled from the debris.

“We’re all feeling very heavy hearted.
So many people weren’t saved,” a soldier said, standing by the remains of a wrecked school.

In Beijing, the country’s top leaders, led by President Hu Jintao, wore white flowers on their chests and bowed in silence.

Nearby, in Tiananmen Square—where pro-democracy protests were crushed by the army in 1989—the sombre mood quickly turned into a vocal show of patriotism. About 1 000 flag-waving people marched in the vast square, singing the national anthem and chanting “Go China Go” and “Rebuild Sichuan”.

Search for survivors

Despite treacherous conditions in the quake zone, the search for survivors went on as families clung to hope for their loved ones.

Bad weather and hundreds of aftershocks have hampered rescue operations. The Transport Ministry said on Monday that more than 200 relief workers had been buried by mudflows in recent days.

Details of the accidents were not immediately available. It was unclear whether any of those buried had survived.

There have been numerous rockslides from unstable mountain slopes, and blocked rivers swollen by heavy rain have threatened to burst their banks.

Authorities believe more than 5 000 are still buried under the rubble in Sichuan. Most are feared dead, but some are still being pulled out alive.

There was a burst of elation in ruined Beichuan when one woman was found alive.

Wang Hongguo, head of the rescue team, said she had found the survivor under a mass of concrete. “We had to pull her out very gradually. She looked quite sturdy, so she might pull through.”

Rescuers also found a 50-year-old woman alive in the wreckage of a residential building at a coal mine.

But they mostly had the gruesome job of recovering decomposing bodies. Dozens were pulled from the rubble in Beichuan on Monday, and rescuers scattered lime and splashed disinfectant to prevent disease.

Farmer Wang Hongchen and his wife, Chen Guangfen, scrambled over hundreds of metres of rubble to look for their son, who repaired cellphones in the town.

“I think there’s still hope. He worked on the first floor, so if he was lucky there would have been space for him to survive,” Wang said, in between shouting out his son’s name over the ruins.

“There’s nothing I want more than to find him alive,” said Chen. “Other people who know their relatives have died can call this a memorial day, or a funeral, but not me yet.”

About 245 000 people were injured in the disaster, the worst to hit China since 1976, but rescuers had yet to reach all the stricken villages, Xinhua reported.

On Monday, the Foreign Ministry appealed to the international community to provide more tents for about 4,8-million people who lost their homes in the quake.

So far, 10,8-billion yuan ($1,55-billion) has been received from donors at home and abroad, China said. Rescue teams from Russia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States and Singapore are also searching for survivors.—Reuters

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