Chinese Gather to Mourn Victims of Sichuan Quake

19 May 2008 - The population of the town by Beichuan has been reduced to zero, but former residents return daily to try to find what remains of their loved ones, a task that is nearly impossible. (Video by Travis Fox)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

MIANYANG, China, May 19 -- China observed three minutes of silence Monday to mourn the tens of thousands of people who died in last week's earthquake, as state media reported that more than 200 rescue workers had been buried in mudslides.

Repair crews and aid workers paused at 2:28 p.m. -- the exact time that the 7.9-magnitude quake erupted in Sichuan province last Monday -- to honor the 34,000 people confirmed dead so far. On highways, cars stopped, with some drivers breaking the silence to honk their horns in recognition of the moment. Elsewhere, air-raid sirens could be heard.

In Tiananmen Square, Chinese bowed their heads before thrusting their fists into the air and shouting, "Long live China!" State television showed footage of President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and others in Beijing, standing in silence at the Communist Party headquarters of Zhongnanhai.

After a week of heroic rescues and miraculous survivals in the aftermath of China's worst natural disaster in three decades, there was little good news Monday.

The official New China News Agency reported that more than 200 rescue workers were buried over two days here in Sichuan while repairing roads. It was unclear what caused the mudslides, but the region continues to experience heavy aftershocks.

And while the emergency effort was still officially aimed at search and rescue, hopes of finding more survivors had subsided. Many areas with collapsed buildings had been quarantined for disinfection and the removal of debris.

Monday marked the start of three days of national mourning, with flags flying at half-staff. The official mourning period is the longest since the death of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping in 1997.

At a makeshift hospital for victims in Sichuan's Anxian town, Zhang Chunying, who is in charge of helping coordinate volunteers, said that even as this country mourns, its people should be proud that Chinese around the world have offered assistance and heartfelt donations.

"We honor the dead by helping those who survived," she said.

In a neighboring village, the mood at a school that had collapsed was strikingly different. Di Kaiwei and dozens of other parents who lost children stood in the ruins of the school, holding letter-size pictures and ID cards of their sons and daughters.

Di said he and other families had not received any information about why the building had not withstood the tremor. He intended to remain at the school for the next three days, in the hopes that the government officials responsible for building the school would show up.

"So many people have gathered here that town officials will have to come pay attention to us," Di said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company