Excavators Battle Debris in China Amid Fears of Disease

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 17, 2008

DUJIANGYAN, China, May 16 -- Heavy earth-moving equipment on Friday rolled up to the rubble of buildings decimated by this week's massive earthquake and began digging in earnest, as the race to find survivors shifted to a race to control disease from thousands of decomposing bodies still trapped.

With temperatures rising and 14,000 bodies still estimated by officials to be buried at building sites across Sichuan province, the government's Health Ministry instructed workers to find, clean and dispose of the bodies as quickly as possible.

Compounding rescue and cleanup efforts, a powerful aftershock Friday knocked out roads and communications in some of the most ravaged parts of the earthquake zone, the Associated Press reported. Damage from the 5.5-magnitude aftershock -- one of dozens of strong tremors since Monday's quake -- was a temporary setback to the mammoth relief operation. State media reported that repair crews were rapidly restoring cellphone service and unblocking roads, AP said.

Family members watched with roiled emotions as front-end loaders dug efficiently through the remnants of two apartment buildings along Dujiangyan Avenue. "There have been no rescue efforts here, and now they start digging without using life signal detection devices," cried Zhang Shili, whose daughter, brother and mother were buried under the tons of concrete that had been a five-story building. "They explained there are very few of those."

Though there were few hopes here that anyone was left alive, state media reported that a businessman was rescued Friday afternoon, nearly 97 hours after the quake struck, from a shattered building in Beichuan, one of the hardest-hit areas. A total of 33 people were rescued in the small mountain city, the New China News Agency said, including three schoolgirls who were pulled free early Friday.

After initially turning down international offers to help rescue survivors, a specialized team from Japan began work on Friday as China admitted other aid from Russia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore.

Chinese President Hu Jintao flew to Beichuan to assess the damage on his first trip to the region since Monday's disaster. "Saving lives is still the top priority of our work," Hu said, according to official media. "The challenge is still severe, and the time is pressing."

The official death toll rose to 22,069, with nearly 170,000 injured. China says it expects the number of dead to approach 50,000.

Many of the dead are schoolchildren who were killed when their buildings were demolished by the quake, and many grief-stricken parents have complained of shoddy construction.

China's housing minister, Jiang Weixin, announced an investigation at a news conference in Beijing, saying schools weren't designed to withstand such a strong earthquake, but he did not rule out corruption as a possible cause. "At this stage, we cannot rule out the possibility that there has been shoddy work and inferior materials," Jiang said.

Hu said the government also needed to make greater efforts to treat the injured and provide basic services for residents who had lost their homes. Tens of thousands of people are living in makeshift tents along the streets and in parks in Dujiangyan alone. With so much attention focused on rescue, they say they have no information about whether the government plans to rebuild their houses or when they will be able to move into some homes and resume their lives.

Local officials are trying to move many of them out into government-organized tent cities on the east side of the provincial capital of Chengdu, an area that experienced less damage in the initial 7.9-magnitude quake. Posters all over the city encourage people to head to designated transportation centers to be bused to the new area.

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