China warned the death toll from this week's earthquake could soar to 50,000, while the government issued a rare public appeal yesterday for rescue equipment as it struggled to cope with the disaster. Rescue workers cleared roads to the epicenter in the race to find survivors.
More than 72 hours after the earthquake rattled central China, the relief effort appeared to shift from poring through downed buildings for survivors to the grim duty of searching for bodies.
The confirmed death toll reached 19,509, up from the nearly 15,000 confirmed dead the day before, according to the Earthquake and Disaster Relief Headquarters of the State Council. The council said deaths could rise to some 50,000, state TV reported.
In Luoshui town — on the road to an industrial zone in Shifang City where two chemical plants collapsed, burying hundreds of people — troops used a mechanical shovel to dig a pit on a hilltop to bury the dead. Two bodies wrapped in white sheets lay near the pit.
Police and militia in Dujiangyan pulverized rubble with cranes and backhoes while crews used shovels to pick around larger pieces of debris. On one side street, about a dozen bodies were laid on a sidewalk, while incense sticks placed in a pile of sand sent smoke into the air as a tribute and to dull the stench of death.
The bodies were later lifted onto a flatbed truck, joining some half-dozen corpses. Ambulances sped past, sirens wailing, filled with survivors. Workers asked the homeless to sign up for temporary housing, although it was unclear where they would live.
Not all hope of finding survivors was lost. After more than three days trapped under debris, a 22-year-old woman was pulled to safety in Dujiangyan. Covered in dust and peering out through a small opening, she was shown waving on state television shortly before being rescued.
The government appealed to the Chinese public calling for donations of rescue equipment including hammers, shovels, demolition tools and rubber boats. The plea on the Ministry of Information Industry’s Web Site said, for example, that 100 cranes were needed.
More than 130,000 soldiers and police joined the relief operation, Xinhua said.
China also accepted an offer from Japan to send a rescue team, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) said in an announcement posted on the ministry Web site.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies issued an emergency appeal for medical help, food, water and tents.
Plans for the Defense Ministry to deploy 101 more helicopters underscored worries that a death toll will skyrocket as time runs out for buried survivors. Nearly 26,000 people remained trapped in collapsed buildings.
Forty-four counties and districts in Sichuan were severely hit, with about half of the 20 million people living there directly affected, Xinhua said.
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