China faces herculean task

Times Staff Writer

Rescue workers facing a rising death toll and heavy rains Tuesday dug for survivors of China’s worst earthquake in decades, as people throughout the country searched for loved ones, medical help, water and food.

At Zhu Renmin Hospital in Mianzhu, where thousands of dead and severely injured people filled a parking lot, police and government workers arrived early in the day to help move patients to the provincial capital, Chengdu, and hospitals elsewhere in the area.

As darkness fell along with steady rain in a city without power, doctors in the parking lot raced to move hospital beds into tents to care for patients huddled in the cold. Surgical gloves, used needles and bedpans littered the ground, along with blood-stained mattresses and adult diapers.

“I’ve never seen so many people dead or injured,” said Luo Ping, a pediatric nurse.


The number of deaths from the magnitude 7.9 quake a day earlier had risen to more than 12,000 in central China’s hard-hit Sichuan province, where the quake was centered 60 miles northwest of Chengdu, state media said.

Officials said soldiers and police officers were struggling to reach at least 18,000 people buried in and around Mianyang, many of them children trapped in the debris of collapsed schools.

Thousands more were believed trapped or missing elsewhere. Throughout the region, roads were closed by landslides, and storms impeded delivery of supplies as the need for medicine and doctors intensified. Tens of thousands spent their days and nights outside.

Rescuers reached hard-hit Beichuan on Tuesday. TV footage showed soldiers in green camouflage lifting large chunks of concrete and talking to students who remained under the rubble.

“How many of you are there?” a rescuer asked.

“About 30,” a chorus of young voices answered back.

Aftershocks and government warnings about safety kept people out of buildings. The official New China News Agency said 80% of Beichuan’s structures had collapsed -- whole swaths of the city.

The quake struck Monday afternoon and was felt across much of China. It was the nation’s worst earthquake since 1976, when more than 240,000 people died.

Rescue workers, including thousands of Chinese troops armed with shovels, made their way through mud and landslides to reach the remote epicenter in mountainous Sichuan province.

Officials expressed gratitude for offers of aid from around the world but said they would not admit foreign aid workers immediately because they could not accommodate them. Officials said the government had allocated more than $120 million for quake aid.

President Bush called President Hu Jintao to express his condolences, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. The U.S. will provide an initial contribution of $500,000 in relief aid, she said.

Premier Wen Jiabao went to Dujiangyan, where a middle school had collapsed and trapped hundreds of students. He also visited other locations.

Part of the main highway to Beichuan, an area north of Chengdu near the epicenter, was closed much of Tuesday.

The alternate road was rutted and muddy in places, with scores of tractors, thrashers and bulldozers slowly making their way to assist in the rescue or for use in the imminent wheat harvest. Flatbed trucks ambled along bearing road-making equipment, an apparent response to the premier’s call to open the roads into the battered area by midnight Tuesday.

“Wen visited here this morning,” said a man named Zhang in neighboring Shifang, who declined to give his first name because of the sensitivity of speaking to foreigners. “The mayor met him, we didn’t. But we were very touched he took the time.”

Zhang was sitting with five family members in a tent made of two oversized umbrellas and a tarp beside their collapsed house.

“I don’t know how we’ll ever afford to rebuild,” he said.

The city is filled with patrolling police officers, some of them carrying scratchy microphones they used to tell residents: “Stay calm. Don’t panic.”

Nearby, police kept a close watch on the Sichuan Feng Industrial Co. factory. It was one of two chemical plants in Shifang that collapsed under the force of the earthquake, burying several hundred people, spilling 80 tons of liquid ammonia and forcing the evacuation of more than 6,000 residents, state news media said.

A man who lives above the plant said he was heading home when he was met by hundreds of panicked workers fleeing the factory.

Several of the giant ammonia tanks were knocked over, he said, killing many of the more than 1,000 workers at the plant, though most were crushed in the rubble.

“People who lived through the chemical disaster said it was unbelievably brutal,” he said.

In Chengdu, a city of more than 11 million people, residents were skittish, most businesses were closed and many people remained in tents or under umbrellas on highway medians. A passing bus shook the ground near the aging Chengdu Hotel, causing about 150 people to flee the lobby.

People could only imagine what the human toll would have been if the quake’s epicenter had been in the city rather than in the relatively rural area to the northwest.

Pang Yuan, 25, a sports equipment retailer, wasn’t taking any chances amid the possibility of more aftershocks. His home wasn’t damaged, but he camped on the street Monday night anyway and planned to again Tuesday, choosing a patch of pavement in front of the Jinsha International Theater.

Pang said he was motivated in part by government advisories to stay away from buildings.

The region has seen severe gasoline shortages. Trucks lined up for half a mile Tuesday; many stations were closed, and taxis reported waiting for an hour or more to fill up.

“My theory is that many people are preparing to jump in their cars and flee if another big one hits,” said Lei Jian, 47, a taxi driver. “It’s the psychology of having just been terrorized.”

Lei said at least 10 of his fares Tuesday were frightened people heading out of the city to camp with their families along the Sha River.

“They told me, ‘If we have to die, we want to die together,’ ” Lei said. “This disaster makes you realize how precious life is.”


Times staff writers Barbara Demick in Beijing, Ching- Ching Ni in Chengdu and Wu Yixiu of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.