HONG KONG—Rescue work following a massive earthquake in China’s far western province of Qinghai is being hampered by altitude sickness and a language barrier, prompting officials to warn volunteers who aren’t up to the task to stay at home, netizens and official media say.
“The officials in Yushu prefecture held a meeting,” wrote user tibetsheep on the microblogging service Twitter, on the channel used to exchange earthquake news.
At least 1,144 people died in the quake, and state media reported Friday that another 417 people remain missing.
“They are discovering that a lot of their volunteers have a reaction to the altitude of a level that varies all the way up to emphysema,” tibetsheep wrote.
“They are emphasizing that no one who lacks experience working at this altitude should travel to Yushu ... Whether it’s for physical reasons or for linguistic purposes, we need Tibetan volunteers."
The same user also confirmed earlier reports that thousands of monks and nuns from other Tibetan regions, including Ganzi [in Tibetan, Kardze] county in the southwestern province of Sichuan, had already arrived at the scene and were often at the front line of the rescue operation.
Elsewhere, official media warned ordinary Chinese not to rush to join the relief effort.
“Since the news came out about the earthquake in Yushu county, we have had a big response from earthquake rescue workers in Jiangxi province wanting to sign up for the rescue effort, saying they want to head off for the disaster region immediately,” an earthquake bureau official surnamed Xiong told the local news Web site in Jiangxi.
“We already have 200 volunteers standing by who could set off at any minute. Of these 180 are trained rescue workers. [But] only eight are earthquake specialists, and only 12 have emergency medical training.”
The bureau chief, surnamed Xiong, warned volunteers against rushing off to the region on their own, as public transportation has been commandeered by the relief effort to move urgently needed supplies to the scene.
“This isn’t the same as Wenchuan county in Sichuan,” Xiong said, referring to the relief efforts that followed a devastating earthquake in China's lower-altitude Sichuan province in 2008.
“This earthquake took place at a high altitude, [in a region of] intense cold and little oxygen. This is an extremely tough environment, and rescue workers will need to be able to run around and move heavy objects.”
“If volunteers have no rescue work experience and no experience at high altitudes, they might find they fall sick from the lack of oxygen, and take up valuable medical resources,” Xiong was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, officials have been trying to round up Tibetan interpreters from across China to send to Yushu to help with the language barrier, according to China's official Xinhua news service.
They have pressed into service around 500 interpreters who come from six ethnic minority colleges nationwide, Xinhua quoted the State Ethnic Affairs Commission as saying Friday.
Chinese health ministry official Wang Yu said that most of the injured are Tibetan, making enquiring about their condition difficult during emergency operations.
Relief workers say 70-90 percent of Gyegu [in Chinese, Jiegu] township's wood-and-mud houses collapsed when earthquakes hit Yushu county early Wednesday.
The strongest of the quakes was measured at magnitude 6.9 by the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado and 7.1 by China’s earthquake administration.
The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that as of late Friday the confirmed death toll had risen to 1,144, up from 791 in the afternoon. It said 11,477 people were injured, 1,174 severely.
“Over 1,000 bodies have been brought to the central hall of Gyegu monastery,” one Gyegu resident told RFA's Tibetan service Friday. “Monks from different monasteries are gathering, sitting around the bodies and chanting and praying for the victims.”
“So far we know there were six monks killed from Gyegu monastery, and countless monks dead from Thrangu monastery. The village next to Thrangu monastery has some 20 survivors left out of a total 100 villagers.”
The resident, who asked not to be identified, complained that the area's wealthy and well-connected were receiving more aid. He also said that many Tibetan residents believe the earthquake resulted from the mining by China of a mountain they regard as sacred.
Original reporting by RFA’s Tibetan, Mandarin, and Cantonese services. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.