Death Toll Rising in China

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
[Map: Earthquake in Sichuan Province, China]
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

MIANYANG, China, May 14 -- Soldiers, paramilitary police and civilian rescue workers struggled against rainstorms and fog early Tuesday to reach thousands of people trapped under the rubble of schools, hospitals and homes collapsed by Monday's deadly earthquake in central China.

Two thousand more people were found dead and as many as 18,000 were believed buried under debris in the area surrounding the city of Mianyang, near Chengdu in Sichuan province, the official New China News Agency reported. The discovery brought to 12,000 the number of people confirmed killed by the tremor, a toll that looks likely to climb as more of the victims in Mianyang and other hard-hit towns are uncovered.

On Wednesday morning, the streets and vacant lots of Mianyang were dotted with makeshift tents sheltering thousands of people who had spent a second night outside their homes in a steady, cold rain. Zheng Minyan, 44, who was under a blue tarp with a dozen of his family members and a small dog, said that he believed his house was still standing and that he would return Wednesday to assess whether his family might be able to move back in.

"We're not doing too bad here," Zheng said, smiling and taking a drag on his cigarette.

Others were not as fortunate. In the town of Dujiangyan, about 30 miles from Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, hundreds of parents gathered outside a school that had collapsed, watching as soldiers tried to unearth children buried below slabs of concrete and brick. Many parents began venting their anger at authorities.

"People are dying!" shouted one father. "Let us dig; we don't need you!"

More than 30,000 army troops along with People's Armed Police and army reservists joined civilian rescue teams. It remained difficult for many of them to reach affected areas. Aftershocks from the 7.9-magnitude quake continued to jolt the region.

In Wenchuan county, one of the most severely affected regions, the Communist Party secretary, Wang Bin, made a widely reported appeal over a satellite telephone for immediate airdrops of food, medicine and tents on Tuesday. He said the aid was needed to care for what he estimated were 30,000 people left homeless by the destruction in Wenchuan town, the county seat. "We are in urgent need of supplies, especially doctors," he said.

The official Xinhua news agency reported Wednesday that 7,700 people were killed in Wenchuan, but it was not clear if that figure was included in the larger toll of 12,000.

Helicopters dispatched to bring help to destroyed villages in the mountainous terrain near the Wolong panda reserve were forced to turn back because of heavy clouds and driving rain, the New China News Agency reported. Similarly, paratroopers who had planned to parachute in called off their mission because of the weather.

The fate of the giant pandas had been unknown until late Tuesday, when officials at Wolong managed to use a satellite phone to contact authorities and report that all of the bears were safe, according to the official news agency. A group of 12 Americans in the area, on a tour sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, still had not been heard from.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who was in the region directing rescue efforts, was seen bowing three times in a ritual of respect for the dead before the ruins of the collapsed school in Dujiangyan, the official agency said. Wen declared that the soldiers, police and other rescuers should make clearing roads to reach those pinned under the rubble their top priority.

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