China quake-lake fears ease as angry parents grieve

Engineers have completed work to drain a lake formed by last month’s earthquake that had threatened to inundate towns downstream and add to the toll of China’s deadliest natural disaster in more than 30 years.

Authorities have evacuated 197 000 people from areas at risk of flooding and drawn up contingency plans to move as many as another 1,3-million people.

The official death toll from the May 12 quake is 68 977 and is expected to rise, with 17 974 people still missing in remote parts of the south-western province of Sichuan.

Officials have said more than 30 landslide-blocked rivers could burst, flooding towns and tent camps where survivors of the 7,9-magnitude quake have taken refuge.

The state-run Xinhua news agency said hundreds of soldiers and paramilitary police working round the clock completed a channel to divert part of the Tangjiashan quake-formed lake at 10pm local time on Saturday.

As a result, engineers had been able to abandon back-up plans to use more than 10 tonnes of dynamite to blast away debris and relieve pressure on the Fu River.

Liu Ning, chief engineer of the Ministry of Water Resources, said water was expected to drain through the man-made sluice for five days starting on Sunday, Xinhua reported.

Long convoys of trucks are still pouring into the mountainous disaster area piled with tents and other supplies for evacuees.

A military transport helicopter with 14 people on board, including 10 residents injured in the quake, crashed in foggy conditions on Saturday near Yingxiu, close to the epicentre of the quake, Xinhua said. A search-and-rescue mission was under way.

Tearful children’s day

More than 6 000 lost children have been reunited with their parents, but 1 800 have still not been able to make contact with family or relatives, Xinhua reported.

Thousands of children died in the quake when their schools crumpled like packs of cards, arousing suspicions among parents that building standards had been flouted because of corruption.

Responding to the fury of parents could become the stiffest political challenge for the ruling Communist Party in the aftermath of the quake.

At a commemoration of Children’s Day, about 200 parents and relatives of pupils killed in the quake gathered on Sunday in the rubble-strewn grounds of what used to be Xinjian Primary School.

Angry and tearful, they wore white T-shirts with the name of the school on the front and, in huge red characters on the back, the slogan ”Severely Punish Corrupt Tofu Dregs Construction” — a reference to the remnants left when making tofu, or beancurd, a common Chinese term for shoddy workmanship and poor materials.

Liao Yingxin, who lost his 12-year-old daughter, said: ”My heart feels very heavy. I can’t really express how it feels.”

One parent said 300 children from the school died in the disaster; another said 400.

A little red knapsack poked through the debris. Drawings are still pinned to the walls of one set of classrooms that only partly crumbled. In the rest of the town of Dujiangyan, some buildings are damaged but many others look remarkably unscathed.

”I don’t understand much about construction, but I can see all the buildings are standing yet the school is gone,” Liao said. ”For the sake of the children, the corrupt must be punished.”

Another man gestured to the school and said: ”If you touch these buildings they turn to powder.”

The air was thick with incense as parents burned paper money and left offerings of fruit. Firecrackers were let off to scare away evil spirits.

”Our beloved children, we wish you a happy Children’s Day in the next world,” said a woman teacher leading the ceremony.

One father held a picture of a little boy with his arm around a snowman; a woman carried a picture of her dead son wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

”Children, please be at ease. Your mothers and fathers, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles have all come here to show their concern for you,” the teacher said. — Reuters

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Lindsay Beck
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