China quake rescuers face huge hurdles

May 15th, 2008 - 11:34 am ICT by admin  

By Bill Smith
Beijing, May 15 (DPA) Chemical spills, creaking dams, tourists stranded 600 metres up a cable car line, and a fire burning for two days on a derailed freight train laden with petrol tankers were some of the relatively minor problems facing Chinese civilian and military rescue services after China’s most devastating earthquake for 32 years. More serious challenges involved trying to rescue thousands of people trapped under giant concrete beams, mangled steel and rubble at schools and factories in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Premier Wen Jiabao Tuesday set the relief workers the apparently impossible goal of reopening the main road along the Min river gorge from Sichuan’s Dujiangyan town to the worst hit county of Wenchuan, the epicentre of the 7.8-magnitude quake, by the end of Tuesday.

Photographs taken in the area showed roads littered with boulders and mud, and blocked by battered and abandoned vehicles.

He Biao, deputy head of Aba prefecture, which administers Wenchuan, quoted an eyewitness account that explained why the task set by Wen was so tough.

“I saw a village on the mountainside disappear in a landslide triggered by the earthquake,” He quoted Wenchuan resident Yang Yang as saying after he travelled by bus along the road as the earthquake struck Monday afternoon.

“Many vehicles on the road were swept away or hit by huge rocks,” Yang said.

Yang and eight other bus passengers walked the remaining 20 km to Dujiangyan, He told the official Xinhua news agency.

Military surveyors Tuesday said they needed two more days to repair the road, forcing troops to travel the 100 kilometres to Wenchuan on foot before helicopters, planes and a few boats began ferrying in supplies and relief workers Wednesday.

Heavy rain and hundreds of aftershocks hampered the initial relief work.

The technical difficulties and the enormous scale of the damage prompted the government to hand overall control to the Chengdu military command Wednesday, and increase to about 100,000 the number of troops and paramilitary police to be deployed in quake-hit areas.

The confirmed death toll had already passed 15,000 and tens of thousands were reported missing and feared dead under collapsed buildings.

The full scale of the disaster became slightly clearer after troops began to report back from areas of Wenchuan that had been cut off for up to two days.

But transport and communications problems meant that there was still “no way to estimate the number of missing and injured people” in the county’s worst-hit townships, said Wang Yi, the head of an elite People’s Armed Police unit.

Wang and his troops set out from Markam, about 130 km from Wenchuan town, arriving in the county close to midnight Tuesday.

“We travelled in vehicles for several miles, then the troops began to walk day and night,” Wang told the state broadcaster CCTV from Wenchuan.

“Some towns basically have no buildings left, they have all been razed to the ground, and the losses are now being assessed,” he said.

In one of those towns, Yingxiu, He Biao said only about 2,300 of the population of more than 10,000 were known to have survived the quake, and more than 1,000 of the survivors were badly injured.

Cries for help were heard from under the debris of a local school, but all roads were blocked and rescuers were forced to dig by hand, he told state media.

As in Yingxiu, rescue workers and doctors in several other towns were racing against time to save as many people as possible, sometimes hearing similar harrowing calls from buried people as they faced a daunting task of reaching them without cranes and excavators.

“Please just hold on, people are going to get you out of here,” Wen Jiabao told trapped residents of Sichuan’s Juyuan town, where heavy lifting equipment had arrived, through a megaphone Monday night.

“If there’s a glimmer of hope, we’ll do all the best to save the people,” state television showed Wen saying at Juyuan’s middle school, where hundreds of students were buried.

Already several heroes have emerged from the tragedy of the earthquake, including Qu Wanrong, a 21-year-old kindergarten teacher.

Qu died while apparently saving a life by cradling one of the children under her body as she was trapped under a concrete slab in Sichuan’s Zundao town, Xinhua said.

At least 400 people died in Zundao, including more than 50 children and three teachers from the kindergarten.

“Qu saved the child at the cost of her life,” Li Juan, the head teacher of the kindergarten, told the agency.

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