Aid and misery grow in China

Times Staff Writers

Everywhere you turned Wednesday, there was more bad news: The official death toll from China's earthquake climbed to nearly 15,000, with thousands still missing; 391 dams were damaged; and in Mianyang county, 3,600 passengers were trapped in trains, and 120 coal miners lost underground.

Although survivors at the epicenter of the magnitude 7.9 earthquake began receiving some aid, tens of thousands of others were in dire straits, lacking food, water and shelter.

To begin meeting the immense needs of survivors, the government airdropped supplies, and crews began rebuilding roads and bridges. People across the country stepped up, in cities and mountain regions, donating money, at times sharing the little food or water available, and comforting one another under terrible conditions.

At the Red Cross Society of China offices in Beijing, volunteers struggled to answer telephones ringing off the hook with offers of help while others counted wads of cash from a steady stream of donors.

China Mobile set up a system that allows cellphone users to donate money via a text message.

The government had not set up a central hotline for people to inquire about their relatives as of late Wednesday, but FM-91.4, a traffic radio station in the Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu, read on air the text messages from survivors in a bid to fill the vacuum. Some websites were also posting messages.

The outpouring of help from the people and the speed with which many groups became involved underscored a fundamental shift in recent years as more individuals and companies take the initiative, eroding the traditional government-led approach. Greater wealth, an emerging middle class and entrepreneurship mark a new generation of citizens more used to making their own decisions.

The government, for its part, has at times warned do-gooders to stay clear and let the army and police do their jobs. "Your capabilities are weak and you're not a professional," an announcer warned on radio stations.

That did not deter citizens such as those in private vehicles Wednesday heading north on the highway to Beichuan.

"Combat the Earthquake, Save the Victims," read a hand-painted white sign on one silver sedan packed with blankets.

Conditions in many areas remained grim. Scores of people were hungry and thirsty and living outside because of collapsed or unsafe homes.

In Dujiangyan, Li Shirong huddled with his extended family under plastic sheeting, taking inventory of their food supply. The family of seven had three bags of instant noodles.

"We will let the children eat first and drink what's left of the soup," he said.

As for water, he pointed with resignation to the meandering river that had turned an ominous brown from mudslides after Monday's earthquake, the worst in the country in three decades. "We would never drink that water if we were not desperate."

Elsewhere, residents said the situation was especially tough for people unable to make it to the center of town to seek help.

"I heard the government is passing out water and crackers, but we have not seen a thing," said Liu Zhiyun, 77, who had carried his blind, 75-year-old wife down three flights of stairs to safety. "In three days I ate one bag of instant noodles. This morning I got a bucket and caught some rainwater to drink."

Wang Zhenjun, who is 92, said she was caring for her 95-year-old husband.

"You have to fight for the handouts," she said. "We are in our 90s. How can we do that?"

Doctors said that with hospitals destroyed and pharmacies buried in rubble, medicine was in short supply. They said they needed emergency medical kits, and medicines for colds, diarrhea and high blood pressure. What little they had they salvaged at great risk by climbing into damaged buildings. They also worried about the poor sanitation.

"The current living condition is very harsh, people's immunity is low, and they are living in crowded quarters. It is very easy for contagious disease to spread," said Wang Yongcheng, a doctor standing outside the blue rescue tents in the middle of town.

The official death toll rose to 14,866, a figure almost certain to increase given that nearly twice that number remained buried under rubble in Sichuan province alone.

Disaster relief officials say their efforts have been slowed by destroyed roads and bridges, landslides and rain. Much of the aid has had to be delivered by risky airdrops, while rescue workers were traveling by foot.

Thousands of Chinese soldiers raced to repair the "extremely dangerous" cracks in the Zipingpu dam, the official New China News Agency said, and experts later declared it was safe.

At a stadium in the Mianyang area, more than 10,000 people gathered to search for relatives, find temporary housing, collect some food and find some comfort amid the terrifying aftershocks. Some of the overflow crowd was housed in dozens of emergency tents outside the stadium.

On a lawn a few hundred yards away, Wang Yuzhen, a 75-year-old farmer with slippers and a small pipe, sat on a knoll in front of a handmade sign with his granddaughter's name written in red ink. The family is from Maliuwan, where two hills fell into each other, killing dozens, and the girl, a fifth-grader, was missing.

"Help me find my relative Yin Yuhuo" read another plea on a sheet of plywood.

Zhang Yunwan, 52, searched for hours for his sister- and brother-in-law without any luck. He decided to try the stadium after he found their house destroyed.

"I'm hugely disappointed," he said. "I heard there were lots of people here but didn't expect this many. It's impossible to find them even if they are here."

Huddled families sought shade where they could as the harsh Sichuan sun returned after several days of rain.

China was struggling to provide the basics for this hard-hit area north of Chengdu, let alone address the sorrow and doubt. Sometimes the reactions of others appeared harsh.

One man who had gone to the stadium to look for his daughter leaned against a tree, a cellphone to his ear, sobbing alone. As his cries intensified, a crowd gathered. "She was only 16," he cried, gasping for breath. "They found her body at her school. My daughter, my daughter."

A stranger leaned down and patted him on the back. Others in the crowd offered condolences. A few at the edge laughed, possibly out of nervousness. "Stop crying, calm down," said one. "Many others have died too," said another. "There's nothing you can do about it," said a third.

Inside, on a blanket on the stadium floor, Li Mingkun, 59, sat crying with her grown daughter in her arms. Beside them was an 8-month-old baby, her grandchild.

Li said that shortly before the quake, she took the baby from her son and daughter-in-law, so they could go shopping for a few minutes. When the quake hit, the shopping area was buried under debris.

"I'm so afraid they're dead," Li sobbed. "Look at this tiny baby. How can he live without his parents?"

Occasionally, however, there were happy endings that buoyed hopes.

Liu Zhiming, a teacher at Leigu Middle School, spent several hours immediately after the quake helping others before realizing that he hadn't heard from his own daughter.

In a panic, he rushed to her school and shouted her name. After several minutes, he caught the sound of her voice from beneath the rubble. For the next six hours he dug furiously by hand, using every bit of energy he could muster until about midnight he managed to free her.

"We can't tell you how relieved we all were," said Chen Yong, 38, a colleague. "It's a rare good story."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

chingching.ni@latimes.com

Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.

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