More than 50,000 people are dead, missing or buried under rubble after China's devastating earthquake, officials said yesterday as the full horror of the disaster began to emerge.
Rescue teams who punched into the quake’s stricken epicenter reported whole towns all but wiped off the map, spurring frantic efforts to bring emergency relief to the survivors.
Planes and helicopters air-dropped supplies, 100 troops parachuted into a county that had been cut off and rescuers in cities and towns across Sichuan Province fought to pull the living and the dead from the debris.
But the overwhelming message that came back from Sichuan Province was that only now was a picture slowly beginning to form of the epic scale of Monday’s 7.9-magnitude quake.
State media quoted Sichuan Vice Governor Li Chengyun (李成雲) as saying that based on “incomplete” figures, 14,463 people were confirmed dead in the province as of mid-afternoon yesterday.
Nearly 26,000 were buried in rubble and nearly 15,000 missing, he said.
But far beyond the numbers is the human tragedy behind China’s worst quake in a generation as rescue teams claw through twisted metal and concrete.
They were looking for people like He Xinghao, 15, whose lifeless body was eventually pulled from the debris of a school close to the epicenter.
Like many other Chinese of his age, strict population policies had made him an only child, and he was showered with affection by his family.
“He was such a good and well-behaved boy. He always did his homework,” said his aunt, Ge Mi, as fresh tears flowed from her reddened eyes.
It was a scene repeated across Sichuan — a province often better known to foreigners for its endangered giant pandas.
The destruction around the epicenter in remote Wenchuan County is massive, with whole mountainsides sheared off, highways ripped apart and building after building leveled.
Cries for help were heard from a flattened school in Yingxiu, where people tried to dig out survivors with their bare hands, state media said.
“The losses have been severe,” Wang Yi, who heads an armed police unit sent into the epicenter zone, was quoted as saying by the Sichuan Online news site. “Some towns basically have no houses left. They have all been razed to the ground.”
At least 7,700 people died in Yingxiu alone, Xinhua quoted a local official as saying, with only 2,300 surviving.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) said 100,000 military personnel and police had been mobilized.
“Time is life,” he told rescuers.
The air drop started with planes and helicopters flying dozens of sorties, dropping tonnes of food and relief aid into the worst-hit zone, most of it cut off from the outside world by landslides and road closures.
As well as Yingxiu, CCTV television said air drops were also made in nearby Mianyang, Mianzhu and Pengzhou, while helicopters flew to Wenchuan with food, drinks, tents, communications equipment and other supplies.
The rescue effort has been badly disrupted since Monday by heavy rain, and the Meteorological Authority forecast more later in the week, raising the risk of fresh landslides.
World powers including the US, the EU and the UN have offered money and expertise, and Pope Benedict XVI called for prayers to be said. However China rebuffed offers to deploy foreign search and rescue experts, saying conditions were “not yet ripe.”