Sichuan's Race Against Time

More than 100,000 soldiers, police, officials, rescuers, and volunteers are racing to save lives in the wake of China's devastating earthquake. But the body count is rising, and aid efforts now are focused on getting clean water to millions of survivors.
2008-05-16 - DUJIANGYAN CITY, Sichuan
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Volunteers distribute bottled water in the center of Dujiangyan, Sichuan. Video: Lin Di

Rescue efforts in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake are turning to the plight of the millions of people displaced by the quake, many of whom are camping outside without reliable access to clean drinking water.

In Dujiangyan city, a fast-moving relief operation staffed and supplied almost entirely by volunteers was up and running in the center of town.

"This is the place where individual donors and organizations can drop off all the water," a volunteer relief worker from Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern Chinese province, said.

"Those barriers over there are where people can queue up to get the water every morning and evening. A lot of people are coming here morning and evening to pick up food and drinking water. This place was badly hit," he said, referring to the city of Dujiangyan where he was distributing aid to victims of the quake.

China now sets the death toll at 22,000 but says it could reach 50,000, with 14,000 more still buried under rubble.

The relief worker said around 30 trucks were arriving daily with privately donated supplies to help those made homeless by the quake, the biggest to hit China in several decades.

"They are all voluntary donors. Two trucks came by last night with water and cotton quilts for bedding... I am from Chengdu. All of us are. We are volunteers."

Donations pour in

Behind him, people formed an orderly queue, apparently waiting to be given what they needed, as volunteers continued to pile up bottled water and bedding being brought by donors.

One resident who voluntarily joined in relief work said: "We live about 30 kms from here. Our town was also badly hit."

"But we sustained less damage than Dujiangyan. We put together a convoy of trucks and delivered bottled mineral water, milk, and bread to Dujiangyan. The donated food is worth around 20,000 yuan," the man said.

Another out-of-town rescue worker said he was struck by the orderly atmosphere as aid was distributed. Others said the thousands of troops drafted in by the government in response to Monday's 7.8-magnitude quake had given them confidence that it was in charge.

"The distribution of food was carried out in an orderly fashion. I was deeply moved," one man said after helping to give out relief supplies in some of the worst-hit areas. "If a group of villagers already received water and food, they would tell us to find people with greater need."

The grisly task of digging through the rubble, where some 14,000 people are still believed to be trapped, continued, even as the dizzying stench of dead bodies made clear that for many it would be too little, too late.

Bodies still buried

Most rescue workers are now wearing masks to cope with the smell. Some of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Dujiangyan are specialist rescue units expert in digging people out of rubble and ruined buildings, an officer said at the site of one excavation.

"We are specialists from Yunnan," the officer said. "They have been in Dujiangyan for three days now. There are forces here from Sichuan, Yunnan, and many other provinces," he added.

Working 24 hours a day in bright lights running off generators, the crew brought out the body of an elderly man by bulldozer, as his stricken relatives gathered round to mourn.

There is still no power at all in the city; only vehicle headlights and the endless buzzing of the rescue teams' arc lights.

A climb over the rubble of a collapsed building that must have been four or five storeys high reveals little sign of life. One rescue worker says more than a dozen bodies remian buried underneath the debris. "We checked,” he says. "They are all dead."

As China rushes to sustain the living and bury the dead, some people are just beginning to come to terms with the magnitude of the losses, in what was a thriving tourist region and area of stunning natural beauty.

Massive losses

In the space of 10 minutes, one woman said, she lost a beloved sister and house she had worked all her life to buy.

"The house was only three years old and it collapsed. All the newer houses collapsed. The old ones are still standing…My sister is buried inside. She was visiting me from Chengdu, and she lost her life. She was only 31."

"I am not a rich person," she said. "The money I spent buying the house was my blood, sweat, and tears."

Sichuan provincial vice governor Li Chengyun said 4.8 million people had been relocated, as the body count rose by 2,000 from Thursday to Friday.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, more than 100,000 soldiers and armed police, local officials and volunteers, medical teams, and rescuers from other provinces were still racing to save lives, with a total of 17 people rescued from rubble on Friday.

The authorities announced they would send 48 portable water-purifying machines to quake-hit areas, as airdropped bottled water was failing to meet the needs of survivors.

In Sichuan alone, water supply facilities were severely damaged in about 20 cities and counties, and water purification tablets were being sent out to the region, along with portable toilets, to ease sanitary conditions in makeshift camping sites, the agency said.

An employee at the hydro-power plant in Yingxiu, in hard-hit Yingxiu township, described surviving the quake. He was in his fourth-floor office when it struck.

Survivor's story

“I acted on my instinct, without thinking, to rush out of the office and run to the stairs. At this time, some pieces of ceiling began to fall,” the man, who identified himself by his surname, Chen, said.

“I sprinted down to the first floor in about 30 seconds and wasn't injured. When I reached the stairs to the building, they suddenly popped up. The tremor was so violent, so scary. I was lifted up by shockwaves from the collapse of other buildings. I fell down hard, and when I tried to get up, I noticed that nearby buildings were collapsing. Smoke suddenly rose from the falling buildings. There was literally no visibility. A few minutes later when dusts settled, the whole town was in ruins.”

One colleague, Dai Jianjun, has been digging since Monday to find his wife in the debris, he said. Another, Mu Yulei, was trapped inside the building but was found alive Friday, after his wife had stayed outside calling his name for days to keep him alive and hopeful.

Shifang mountain collapse

In Shifang, one of the worst-hit towns about 70 kms north of Chengdu, a local woman described how the quake had collapsed two mountains into one—trapping residents between them and burying nine primary schools.

“Hundreds and hundreds of school kids were buried alive,” she said “Shifang and Wenchuan, the epicenter of the May 12 quake, were connected by two mountains. A lot of people lived in the mountains. There was also a chemical factory up there,” the woman said. “The factory was destroyed—flattened—in the quake.”

“My relatives lived in the mountains. They crawled their way out of the ruins the following day. Several thousand people in Shifang died. More than 10,000 people are still missing,” she said.

Another woman said numerous tourists had also been in the area at the time of the quake.

A coal miner said he and his colleagues initially mistook the quake for a gas leak.

“There was some kind of combustion in the mine. I thought it was a gas leak. I yelled and told everyone to run. Then the beams collapsed. We fell. We got up and started running again. We fell again… It was pitch dark. We ran… for more than 100 meters and got out just in time.”

Original reporting in Mandarin by Lin Di. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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