Hope of excavating additional survivors faded tonight as local and international rescue workers digging through rubble from Taiwan's devastating earthquake found hundreds more corpses but few remaining signs of life.
By this evening, the Taiwanese government put the number of fatalities from Tuesday's 7.6-magnitude temblor and the aftershocks that followed at 2,131, an increase of about 90 from Wednesday night's estimate. The injury count continued to climb, to 8,137. More than 300 people were believed to be still trapped in collapsed structures across the island, and 68 people were missing.
A group of 68 specialists from Fairfax County's Urban Search and Rescue Team have not freed any new survivors since early this morning when members extracted a 33-year-old man from a toppled 12-story apartment building, according to group leader Michael Tamillow.
Just after sunset, Tamillow, visibly discouraged, assembled his crew to inform them that, after making a final sweep of the area Friday, they would head home. "There's no more of our type of work to be done here," he said. "We feel very confident that there are no more sites in this area left to check."
In total, outside rescue teams from countries including the United States, Japan, Russia, Singapore and Turkey have saved six people since Tuesday's jolt, said officials at Taiwan's National Fire Fighting Administration.
As odds of finding survivors plummeted, friends and relatives of some victims still buried under the wreckage lashed out at Taiwan's political leaders today. President Lee Teng-hui, who traveled to Touliu by helicopter this morning to survey the damage, was assailed by angry citizens here and in other locations. Critics have charged that the government turned a blind eye to shoddy construction methods and moved slowly in aiding survivors.
On Wednesday, Lee's cabinet announced that the government would set aside $94 million for disaster relief and offer $15,700 in compensation to families of every citizen killed in the quake.
Disaster officials estimate that the quake has left at least 100,000 people homeless. Electric power and phone service were restored in most areas outside Taichung and Nantou, the two counties closest to the quake's epicenter. But in the city of Taichung, residents braced for water shortages because of damage to a nearby reservoir.
The modest number of people rescued haunted members of the Fairfax County crew. The team came equipped with more than 58,000 pounds of food, medical supplies and high-tech rescue gear and more than a decade of experience at digging out survivors.
But the Fairfax team--regarded by many as the most sophisticated earthquake rescue squad in the world--found itself on the periphery of the disaster. Touliu is more than 20 miles from towns and villages such as Tungshi, Chungliao, Nantou and Puli, which suffered the greatest damage in the quake.
The quake struck with far less force in Touliu. Except for a handful of 10- to 12-story apartment buildings, which tilted precariously after the lower floors collapsed, few structures here seem badly damaged. Residents estimated that the quake claimed no more than about 40 victims. The young man saved by the Fairfax team this morning had been located hours before their arrival by Taiwanese rescue workers.
In the many international disasters to which the Fairfax team has been deployed over the past decade, "we've never been assigned to a location with such limited search-and-rescue opportunities," Tamillow said tonight. "We covered two or three sites here, and we were finished."
For all the sophistication of its electronic listening equipment, specialized video cameras and rescue dogs, the group flies blind in many ways. Decisions about where it will be deployed and what structures it will probe are worked out by diplomats and local rescue officials while the Virginians are en route.
Ying Li Wu, a spokesman for Taiwan's national fire administration, said Wednesday night that his agency decided to send the U.S. team to Touliu before it was clear which areas had been hardest hit.
Leaders of the U.S. squad offered to strike camp and work through the night if invited by Taiwan's government to relocate. Just after dark, a few minutes after accepting a bouquet of roses from a delegation of Touliu residents, they learned that their offer had been rejected. Taiwanese officials, for their part, expressed disappointment that the U.S. crew declined to remain and help recover bodies of the dead.