Rescuers dug through schools and homes turned into rubble by China’s worst earthquake in three decades to reach victims trapped beneath bricks and slabs of concrete. The death toll from the disaster rose on Tuesday to nearly 12,000 with thousands more missing.
A day after the powerful 7.9 magnitude quake struck on Monday afternoon, state media said rescue workers had reached the epicenter in Wenchuan county – where the number of casualties was still unknown. The quake was centered just north of the Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu in central China, tearing into urban areas and mountain villages.
But rain was impeding efforts and a group of paratroopers called off a rescue mission due to heavy storms, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The death toll rose to 11,921, said Wang Zhenyao, disaster relief division director at the Ministry of Civil Affairs. At least 4,800 people remained buried in Mianzhu, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the epicenter, Xinhua said, citing local authorities.
The casualty figures were expected to rise and remained uncertain due to the remote areas affected by the quake and difficulty in finding buried victims.
Earthquake rescue experts in orange jumpsuits extricated bloody survivors on stretchers from demolished buildings, and some 34,000 troops swarmed into the region to help.
Hope was fleeting as bodies covered with sheets lined streets and filled schoolyards. Only 58 people were extricated from collapsed buildings across the quake area, China Seismological Bureau spokesman Zhang Hongwei told Xinhua, as rescuers raced to save more.
“Time is of the essence,” said disaster relief director Wang, adding that rescue efforts could take a week.
“Survivors can hold on for some time. Now it’s not time to give up,” Wang told reporters in Beijing.
Aftershocks rattled the region for a second day, sending people running into the streets in Chengdu. The US Geological Survey measured the shocks between magnitude 4 and 6, some of the strongest since Monday’s quake.
Zhou Chun, a 70-year-old retired mechanic, was leaving Dujiangyan with a soiled light blue blanket draped over his shoulders.
“My wife died in the quake. My house was destroyed,” he said. “I am going to Chengdu, but I don’t know where I’ll live.”
Zhou and other survivors were pulling luggage and clutching plastic bags of food amid a steady drizzle and the constant wall of ambulances.
Just east of the epicenter, 1,000 students and teachers were killed or missing at a collapsed high school in Beichuan county – a more than six-story building reduced to a pile of rubble about two yards (meters) high, according to Xinhua. Xinhua said up to 5,000 people were killed and 80 percent of the buildings had collapsed in Beichuan, north of Chengdu.
The deaths were separate from another leveled school in Dujiangyan where 900 students are feared dead. As bodies of teenagers were carried out on doors used as makeshift stretchers, relatives lit incense and candles and also set off fireworks to ward away evil spirits.
Rescue teams were also trying to get to a woman who was eight months pregnant and trapped in a seven-story apartment building that collapsed.
Elsewhere, a 40-car freight train derailed in the quake that included 13 gasoline tankers was still burning Tuesday, Xinhua said.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who rushed to the area to oversee rescue efforts, said a push was on to clear roads and restore electricity as soon as possible. His visit to the disaster scene was prominently featured on state TV, a gesture meant to reassure people that the ruling party was doing all it could.
China’s Ministry of Health issued an appeal for blood donations to help the quake victims.
Fifteen missing British tourists were believed in that area at the time of the quake and were “out of reach,” Xinhua reported.
They were likely visiting the Wolong Nature Reserve, home to more than 100 giant pandas, whose fate also was not known, Xinhua said, adding that 60 pandas at another breeding center in Chengdu were safe.
The disaster comes less than three months before the start of the Beijing Olympics. The tragedy is just the latest event to tarnish the run-up to the event meant to showcase China’s rise that has been marked by internal strife and anti-China sentiment abroad.
Still, Beijing Olympics organizers said the torch relay will continue as planned through the quake-affected area next month.
Expressions of sympathy and offers of help poured in from the United States, Japan and the European Union, among others.
The government said it would welcome outside aid. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said relief authorities “are ready to make contact with relevant countries and organisations.”
Russia was sending a plane with rescuers and aid, the country’s Interfax news agency reported.
But Wang, the disaster relief official, said international aid workers would not be allowed to travel to the affected area.
“We welcome funds and supplies; we can’t accommodate personnel at this point,” he said.
China’s Ministry of Finance said it had allocated 860 million yuan ($123 million; Dh452.64 million) in aid for quake-hit areas.
The quake was China’s deadliest since 1976, when 240,000 people were killed in the city of Tangshan, near Beijing in 1976. Financial analysts said the quake would have only a limited impact on the country’s booming economy.