After Five Days, Hope for Miracles Is Slipping Away

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 Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 18, 2008

HANWANG, China, May 17 -- Suddenly the groaning steam shovel went silent. Rescue workers in orange jumpsuits swarmed over chunks of concrete debris and closed in. Carefully, deliberately and, it seemed, respectfully, they began digging into the rubble with their hands.

Another body had been discovered in the ruins of Hanwang, one of hundreds uncovered so far in this once-prosperous farming market, a riverside city of half a million residents east of the epicenter of Monday's devastating earthquake.

Five days have gone by since the earth shook here, stopping the clock tower in Hanwang Square at 2:28 p.m. and sending scores of buildings crashing down in dusty heaps. Hopes have dimmed that any more survivors can be found. The residents crowding around rescue operations in Hanwang have come mainly to see if the next body pulled from the debris is that of someone in their family.

Across a wide swath of Sichuan province, where the quake was centered and the most damage was done, countless thousands of families have begun to come to similar realizations. A few more extraordinary rescues may be made -- at least three people were pulled out of collapsed buildings Saturday, and a man was found "only slightly bruised" after being trapped for 139 hours, the New China News Agency reported Sunday -- but officials made clear that the time has come to focus on gathering the bodies and burying them quickly before decay and disease set in.

The number of confirmed dead has risen to about 29,000, the government announced in Beijing. The tally is expected to reach as many as 50,000 by the time the grim clearing operations are over at an estimated 3 million homes and other buildings that fell apart when the tremor struck, officials warned.

Housing Minister Jiang Weixin said at a news conference in Beijing that a lack of clean drinking water raises the risk that outbreaks of illness could contribute to an even higher toll. To ward off the danger, truckloads of bottled water were seen heading for the disaster zone, where officials said more than a million people are without safe supplies. Villagers in the most isolated reaches of Sichuan's hilly farmlands reported being forced to drink yellow water from dirty streams and troubled wells.

Several thousand refugees at two flattened towns in the quake zone, meanwhile, were ordered to flee because of fears that rivers swollen by landslides were about to burst over their banks and flood low-lying areas, the official New China News Agency reported. A number of rivers and lakes in the quake zone have been pushed to unusually high levels by the giant landslides, straining dams and embankments, officials warned.

Despite the dwindling chances of finding survivors, Zhang Xun, a doctor who traveled here from faraway Hebei province to volunteer his services, waited at the ready as the rescuers sifted into Hanwang's debris, his surgical mask pulled on and his stethoscope coiled around his neck. No matter the odds, he said, he would stick around just in case his help is needed.

"You never know what kind of a surprise awaits you," he said almost cheerfully.

As the rescuers dug into the ruins of what had been a neighborhood bank branch, a young couple putted up on a motorcycle. Dismounting on the run, they pushed straight for the clutch of digging rescuers, the woman shouting, weeping and demanding to be told the identity of the body about to be uncovered.

The couple was intercepted by a policeman and told gently to stand back. They could check with an information center down the street, he said. Apparently pacified, they walked onto a delicately arched footbridge leading across a dry canal and disappeared down a quay lined with ruined buildings.

At the foot of the little footbridge, framed as if in a traditional Chinese watercolor, a slight teenage girl sobbed uncontrollably, her angular shoulders trembling and tears dripping from her eyes into a surgical mask that covered her nose and mouth. Beside her an older woman tried to be of comfort, taking her hand, whispering reassurances and encouraging her to stop weeping.

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