PINGWU COUNTY, Sichuan—Rescuers and relief workers are scrambling to get to remote hill-towns in China's southwestern province after the region was hit by a magnitude 6.0 aftershock that destroyed at least two schools, trapping hundreds of schoolchildren under the rubble.
The dusty road from Jiangyou city to Pingtong township is obstructed at every turn by hooting traffic and fallen lumps of concrete. Five kms from the worst-hit area, buses are forced to halt and their passengers begin to walk toward the scene of the latest tragedy, in which casualties include many children.
"It happened in Pingwu county, in the primary school there. Around 400 children were killed. That's 400 children in a single school," a resident of the region who arrived in Jiangyou city, the epicenter of the aftershock, said.
"It happened when the school building collapsed. They had just gone into the classroom and lessons were about to begin," the man said.
"The same thing happened to a high school in Pingtong township. I think about 700 or 800 students died there. A lot of people who were out and about died as well. Basically the place has been razed to the ground."
At the main crossroads in the town, a large number of buildings has fallen, and trees are uprooted, leaving gaping holes in the earth at every turn.
More tremors to come
The air is thick with the stink of disinfectant, which assaults the eyes, mouth, and nose. The scale of the tragedy that has hit this small hill-town is indescribable.
The Sichuan Seismological Bureau has issued an emergency warning of further aftershocks of the same magnitude between May 19 and 20, in areas already reeling from the destruction wreaked by the initial tremor. Some hotels are urging tourists and journalists to leave, for their own safety.
Thousands of people spent the night in the open Tuesday after the announcement was made.
Back in Jiangyou, medical staff from the 903 hospital are busy evacuating badly injured patients to Chongqing, which has suffered much less damage from the quake.
"Most of the injuries are from people being caught in collapsing buildings. It started on May 12," a Jiangyou resident said. "They are being moved to Chongqing. These people are all going to Chongqing."
A woman surnamed Zhang from Jiangyou and her family of three have already been sleeping in a tent on the street for a week.
They say they are forced to buy food at hugely inflated prices in the absence of any government aid. "The aftershocks went on continually after midnight. At 5:15 p.m. there was another aftershock again," she said. "Everything is still unstable."
"Not one government official has come to see us, nor have they sent condolences to us," Zhang said.
"We have to find food and water to eat. No one is taking care of us. We have to go out and look for water. A bowl of rice noodles that would only cost few yuan in a normal situation now costs around 12 yuan."
She said she feared the family would run out of money to buy food. "I don’t know how long we can go on like this."
Meanwhile, medical teams were on their way from elsewhere in China to help with disease prevention work.
A resident surnamed Ding from Muyu village, Qichuan county, said that one of the biggest challenges came from the number of dead bodies still unburied. "They are starting epidemic prevention work now," he said. "There are so many bodies. When the relatives identify the victims, the officials dig a hole and bury them."
He echoed Zhang's concerns about water. "The worst thing right now is water," he said. "Many people have been drinking polluted water, and now there is a problem with diarrhea."
The official count of dead, missing, or buried following the quake has soared past 71,000, local officials said, although the confirmed death toll from the earthquake in Sichuan and neighbouring areas stands at 34,073, according to the central government.
Soldiers on site
In Pingtong township, Pingwu county, solider and military vehicles are in motion everywhere. Along one two-km stretch of road, countless people are buried under collapsed houses.
The new main building at Mingde Elementary School survived the earthquake intact, although its windows are shattered and doors damaged. But its other buildings were razed, and one crumbled wall still exhibits the torn remnants of children’s artwork.
Several hundred meters away is Pingtong High School. Blood-stained textbooks, notebooks, and satchels are visible in its debris. Collapsed bunk beds and clothing are strewn though devastated dorm rooms, and one room contains a poster that reads, “You will be rewarded for what you give.”
According to one resident, students’ bodies were lined up in rows on the school playground.
Some students were found alive, said another. “Some of the students dug out on the first day were still alive. But there was no medication to treat them. So some died in excruciating pain from lack of medicine.”
“The roads were blocked and we couldn’t get here fast enough. After we arrived, not a single injured student died. We put bandages on them. The seriously injured were taken out of here for treatment,” he said.
Another man, a hitch-hiking migrant worker from Beichuan, said he had lost everything. “I am a migrant worker. I was out of town when the quake hit. I hurried home when I heard the news. I arrived home only yesterday. I lost everyone in my family, and everything,” he said.
In Pengzhou city, a municipal water official said one town, Longmen in the northwestern area of Chengdu, was at grave risk following an aftershock and landslide, so 8,000 residents were evacuated.
Another 9,000 people were evacuated from Xian Qinchuan because of possible landslides.
“Villagers from nearby towns have been evacuated,” the official said. “Only those who live in the downstream area have to be notified and evacuated. If the dam breaks, they will have major flooding. We are also worried about the aftershocks and the situation of the lake.”
If the situation worsens, rescue workers will also be forced to evacuate, the official said. Officials are working around the clock, three people to each eight-hour, to monitor the situation, the official said.One Longmen resident said he had walked more than 30 hours to Penzhou city, where local government officials had arranged for refugees to stay in a school.
“Because of the landslides there, we had to be evacuated to a school,” he said. “There were thousands of people there.”
Another Longmen resident said officials
had rescinded a directive for refugees to return home because of a new risk of
aftershocks and storms.
Article ‘not predictive’
Zhou Rongjun, an engineer at the Sichuan Seismological Bureau of Sichuan Province, downplayed a 2007 report he co-authored in the journal Tectonics that said geologic faults in the region posed a “potentially serious” quake risk.
“This isn’t a prediction of the earthquake. It’s only a background study,” Zhou said. “I never expected the scale of the earthquake would be so big. There are still some discrepancies, but now we have an opportunity to study this earthquake zone again and learn what is inside there.”
In the article, Chinese and Western scientists warned that “the faults are sufficiently long to sustain a strong ground-shaking earthquake, making them potentially serious sources of regional seismic hazard.”
Original reporting in Mandarin by Lin Di, and in Cantonese by Lee Yong-tim. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.