China races the clock as quake toll nears 12,000 (Lead)

May 13th, 2008 - 5:47 pm ICT by admin  

Beijing, May 13 (Xinhua) Rescuers are racing against time to reach and search for survivors a day after the strongest quake to hit China in more than three decades jolted the south-western province of Sichuan. As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, the death toll from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake climbed to 11,921, according to the ad hoc headquarters of the disaster relief headed by Premier Wen Jiabao. Of the dead, 11,608 were in Sichuan.

Wenchuan county, the epicentre of the devastating quake, has reported 57 confirmed deaths and about 60,000 residents have yet to be reached.

“I am so worried! So worried!” He Biao, a government official with the Aba Autonomous prefecture of Tibetan and Qiang nationalities, Sichuan province, exclaimed to Xinhua over the phone. Wenchuan forms part of the prefecture.

Wenchuan and neighbouring areas are situated in the steep hills, north of Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu. Attempts to reach the epicentre “via land, air and water were all thwarted” by a combination of transport and communications problems and rain, said an official with the Sichuan provincial relief headquarters.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who flew to Sichuan Monday evening, urged the public to have “composure, confidence and courage” in the face of the catastrophe.

He ordered the removal of rocks and mud slides that are blocking roads to the epicentre by midnight Tuesday. “People are trapped in debris, we must use every second,” he told officials at an emergency meeting at 7 a.m.

As of Tuesday morning, 16,760 soldiers joined in the disaster relief efforts. Another 34,000 members of the Jinan and Chengdu military area commands were advancing towards the disaster-stricken regions by plane, train, road and even on foot.

The air force has been ordered to parachute relief troops into Wenchuan if rainy weather conditions continue to block helicopter landings.

The General Staff Department (GSD) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) issued the order early Tuesday in an effort to speed up the deployment of rescuers.

The GSD ordered that the 10,000 relief troops stationed in the eastern province of Shandong be transported by air instead of rail to Sichuan to save time. Also, civilian aircraft have been mobilized to help with transportation.

By noon Tuesday, some 1,300 rescue and relief troops, including doctors and soldiers, had arrived at Wenchuan County for the first time after the quake struck and started operations in rain.

In Beichuan county, about 160 km northeast of the epicentre of Wenchuan county, rescuers were searching frantically for survivors in the rubble. At least 1,000 students and teachers were buried when a school in the county collapsed following the quake.

The main building of the Beichuan Middle School, a seven-story structure, has been reduced to a pile of rubble about 2 metres high.

About 2,000 students, parents and villagers waited on campus overnight as nearly 1,000 armed police searched for survivors in the ruins. Some covered themselves with quilts as it began to rain early Tuesday.

The quake, the worst to hit China since the Tangshan quake of 1976, also toppled schools and buildings elsewhere in Sichuan and the neighbouring Chongqing municipality, trapping thousands.

In Anchang Township, Anxian county, about 20 km from Beichuan, power, water and gas supplies were disrupted and food and drinking water have become scarce. Most stores in the town have run out of supplies and many residents are living on leftovers from two days ago.

A spokesman for the China Seismological Bureau (CSB) said here Tuesday that rescuers have so far saved 58 people trapped under collapsed buildings and rubbles.

“The rescue work remains very difficult,” Zhang Hongwei at a press conference.

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