Cries for help echoed from under the rubble of shattered communities yesterday as China warned time was running out to save survivors of an earthquake that has claimed an estimated 50,000 lives.
The first foreign rescue teams were allowed into the disaster zone to join the frantic — and increasingly grim — search for life among the huge mounds of concrete and metal that were once homes, schools and factories.
Bringing specialist equipment, including sniffer dogs, they mark the first time Beijing has accepted foreign professionals for a domestic disaster rescue and relief operation.
“Quake relief work has entered into the most crucial phase,” Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) said after flying to Mianyang, one of the cities worst hit in Monday’s 7.9-magnitude quake.
“The challenge is still severe, the task is still arduous and the time is pressing,” he said, quoted by China’s Xinhua news agency.
The epic scale of the quake — which rattled buildings across China and in cities as far away as Thailand and Vietnam — has become clearer after teams hiked their way through to remote towns cut off by landslides.
Amid the desolation there have been small miracles — a child was pulled alive yesterday out of a ruined school in Beichuan, nearly 100 hours after the quake struck, and three other survivors were found in the rubble of an office building and hospital.
Xinhua said rescuers could hear more voices calling for help.
“The possibility is very great that we can rescue the buried,” one rescuer was quoted as saying. “Giving up is excluded from our dictionary.”
But increasingly, rescuers have been dragging out bloodied bodies.
In Mianyang, 10,000 people made homeless by the quake have squeezed into a stadium, where they anxiously scanned updated lists of new arrivals in fading hope of a miraculous reunion with loved ones.
State television, quoting figures from national quake relief headquarters, said the government estimates the death toll at more than 50,000.
The official confirmed toll in worst-hit Sichuan Province is 19,500, but several tens of thousands more are lying under debris.
After initially rebuffing offers of foreign aid teams, China has agreed to rescuers from Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea.
A Japanese team, the first to arrive, headed into a town where hundreds of families are reported buried, and a second Japanese team with sniffer dogs was en route.
South Korea is sending 44 experts and Singapore a team of 55 who helped in the aftermath of quakes in Indonesia, Pakistan and after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
They are bringing sniffer dogs, fiber-optic scopes, life detector systems and hydraulic cutters and spreaders.
Close to 7,000 schools collapsed during the quake, with entire floors crashing down on each other and burying children in their classrooms.
Responding to public anger, China’s housing ministry launched a probe into why so many crumbled, promising severe punishment for anyone responsible for shoddy construction.
The military, which has been spearheading rescue efforts, has scaled up its deployment.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) said the tremor was the “most destructive” the country had known since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 — more powerful than the 1976 Tangshan disaster, which claimed 240,000 lives.