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Excavators Battle Debris in China Amid Fears of Disease

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.

Many Dujiangyan residents are reluctant to leave. "My home is here and if it's really not necessary, I won't leave," said Wu Chang Wen, 36, who is living with 10 people in a tent near Pu Bai bridge.

But Li Jian Guo, 40, was ready to try the government's temporary housing. He needed a break from Dujiangyan. "I feel the city has changed into another world," he said as he stood in line for a bus along with 19 family members. "It's so heavy. I cannot express it. Every time I see a collapsed building, I'm really nervous."

Li said he would return, though. "When the danger is gone, everyone wants to come back."

In addition to stepping up services to quake survivors, government propaganda efforts are also increasing. An office on a main street here declares itself to be the home of the Front Line Propaganda Encouragement Team. Banners are strung across streets and plastered on the fronts of trucks and the sides of cars with such slogans as "Fight the earthquake!"

A helicopter dropped leaflets over a large tent city in the center of town. They said, "10,000 people -- one heart! Together we will create a new city! Put your full effort into disaster rescue! Persevere to victory!"

The China Youth League and other groups are blanketing the region with volunteers to deliver water, milk, food and other services to survivors. Blood donation centers are swamped, and charitable donations continue to rise. Even the widow of late communist leader Deng Xiaoping, who was born in Sichuan, donated the equivalent of $14,280 to the relief effort, her entire life savings, state media reported.

Police also began stepping in more aggressively to discourage the reporting of grim news. As bodies were being dug out at the site of the two demolished apartment buildings, for example, officials moved to block reporters from recording images of the scenes.

But the anguish of surviving family members watching the earth-moving equipment was still palpable. "See that white object on top of the pile?" asked Bai Yi, a third-year college student watching the excavation work and hoping to be able to identify the body of his niece, who had not yet been recovered. "That is our refrigerator. I've been at the top of that pile. I've smelled the smell of the bodies. I have been watching all the time."

Ma Yuan Zhang, 56, has pitched his tent next to the apartment building where he used to live with his wife, son and father. He was not home when the quake hit, but the others were and only his wife was able to escape. He said he was able to get back to the apartment about an hour after the quake and heard his father yelling for help. He could not dig him out, so he found some armed police and asked them to help.

"Nobody came," he said. "Now I just want to see my family one last time. The only thing I'm asking the government for now is a car to send their bodies to the morgue."

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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