China quake death toll could hit 50,000

William Foreman
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
A couple builds a shelter on the ruins of their house at Luoshui, near Shifang, in China's southwest Sichuan province Thursday May 15, 2008. China warned the death toll from this week's earthquake could soar to 50,000, while the government issued a rare public appeal Thursday for rescue equipment as it struggled to cope with the disaster. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

LUOSHUI TOWN, China ” China warned the death toll from this week’s earthquake could soar to 50,000, while the government issued a public appeal Thursday for rescue equipment as it struggled to cope with the disaster.

More than 72 hours after the quake rattled central China, rescuers appeared to shift from poring through downed buildings for survivors to the grim duty of searching for bodies ” with 10 million directly affected by Monday’s temblor.

At least 12,300 people remained buried and another 102,100 were injured in Sichuan province, where the quake was centered, the vice governor told reporters.

In Luoshui town ” on the road to an industrial zone in Shifang city where two chemical plants collapsed, burying hundreds of people ” troops used a mechanical shovel to dig a pit on a hilltop to bury the dead.

Police and militia in Dujiangyan pulverized rubble with cranes and backhoes while crews used shovels to pick around larger pieces of debris. On one sidestreet, about a dozen bodies were laid on a sidewalk, while incense sticks placed in a pile of sand sent smoke into the air as a tribute and to dull the stench of death.

The bodies were later lifted onto a flatbed truck, joining some half-dozen corpses. Ambulances sped past, sirens wailing, filled with survivors. Workers asked those left homeless to sign up for temporary housing, although it was unclear where they would live.

Not all hope of finding survivors was lost. After more than three days trapped under debris, a 22-year-old woman was pulled to safety in Dujiangyan. Covered in dust and peering out through a small opening, she was shown waving on state television shortly before being rescued.

“I was confident that you were coming to rescue me. I’m alive. I’m so happy,” the unnamed woman said on CCTV.

One earthquake expert said the time for rescues was growing short.

“Generally speaking, anyone buried in an earthquake can survive without water and food for three days,” said Gu Linsheng, a researcher with Tsinghua University’s Emergency Management Research Center. “After that, it’s usually a miracle for anyone to survive.”

The confirmed death toll reached 19,509 on Thursday, up from the nearly 15,000 confirmed dead the day before, according to the Earthquake and Disaster Relief Headquarters of the State Council, the country’s Cabinet. The council said deaths could rise to some 50,000, state TV reported.

The government issued an appeal to the Chinese public calling for donations of rescue equipment including hammers, shovels, demolition tools and rubber boats. The plea on the Ministry of Information Industry’s Web Site said, for example, that 100 cranes were needed.

More than 130,000 soldiers and police joined the relief operation, Xinhua said.

“This is only a beginning of this battle, and a long way lies ahead of us,” Vice Health Minister Gao Qiang told reporters in Beijing.

“We will never give up hope,” he said. “For every thread of hope, our efforts will increase 100-fold. We will never give up.”

Premier Wen Jiabao visited Qingchuan in northern Sichuan province, site of a collapsed school that buried dozens of children, to encourage doctors and nurses aiding the injured.

“The party and the government are grateful to you. The people need you,” he said in footage shown on CCTV. “They see you as a relative. Every act and word of yours represents the government.”

After days of refusing foreign relief workers, China accepted an offer from Japan to send a rescue team, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in an announcement posted on the ministry Web site.

Taiwan’s Red Cross said China also agreed to accept a 20-person emergency relief team from the island. Taiwan is also sending a cargo plane to Chengdu with tents and medical supplies. The Air Macau plane will make a brief stop in Macau.

Taiwan and China, which split during civil war in 1949, have banned regular direct links and other formal contacts as political disputes persist.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also issued an emergency appeal for medical help, food, water and tents.

Gu Qinghui, the federation’s disaster management director for East Asia who visited Beichuan county near the epicenter, said more than 4 million homes were shattered across the quake area.

“The whole county has been destroyed. Basically there is no Beichuan county anymore,” Gu said in Beijing, adding the death toll was sure to rise.

Roads were cleared Thursday to two key areas that felt the brunt of the quake’s force, with workers making it to Wenchuan at the epicenter and also through to Beichuan county, Xinhua reported. Communication cables also were reconnected to Wenchuan.

The blocked roads had prevented rescuers from moving heavy equipment to the worst-affected areas, with soldiers riding to isolated mountain villages on helicopters and small boats previously forced to dig for survivors with their hands.

Hundreds of troops marched to the epicenter across the Zipingpu dam that had reportedly suffered cracks from the disaster, raising fears it could endanger communities downriver. There was no repair work or extra security seen Thursday at the dam by an Associated Press photographer, indicating the threat to the structure had likely passed.

Public donations so far have totaled $186 million in cash and goods, Xinhua said.

Dujiangyan city was clogged with buses and trucks decked out with banners from companies saying they were offering aid to disaster victims. One tour bus was stuffed full of water bottles, cartons of biscuits and instant noodles.

Public donations so far have totaled $125 million in both cash and goods.

NBA star Yao Ming, China’s most famous athlete, was planning to donate $285,000 to the relief effort, agent Erik Zhang said.

“My thoughts are with everyone back in my home country of China during this very dark and emotional time,” Yao said in a statement from Houston, where he is recovering from a broken left foot with hopes of competing in the Beijing Olympics this August.

As the rescue effort gathered momentum, the depth of the problem of tens of thousands homeless stretched government resources.

North of Chengdu in Deyang, the largest town near the devastated areas of Hanwang and Mianyang, thousands of people have streamed into the city hospital since Monday, mostly with head or bone injuries.

Patients heavily wrapped in bandages and with cuts and bruises were huddled in canvas tents in the hospital’s parking lot.

“Our doctors have worked continuously since Monday and people keep coming in. We have to keep strengthening our measures to keep up,” said Luo Mingxuan, the Communist Party secretary of the hospital.

There were piles of donated clothing for survivors at the hospital and stands for them to make free telephone calls. Handwritten notes with names of the injured were posted on a board in front of the hospital’s emergency section, where ambulances arrived every few minutes.

Also Thursday, a group of 33 American, British and French tourists were airlifted from Wolong, site of the world’s most famous panda preserve, to the provincial capital of Chengdu, Xinhua reported. All were in good health, Xinhua said.