Armed with life detectors, rescuers searched for survivors Friday more than 48 hours after an earthquake levelled homes in western China, killing at least 760 people. Many survivors shivered through a second night outdoors as they waited for tents to arrive in the remote, mountainous Tibetan corner.
People with broken arms or legs cried in pain as medical teams could offer little more than injections. A doctor at the Qinghai provincial hospital, where the severely injured were being flown, said she had no idea how many were being treated because there was no time to count them all.
Stunned survivors wandered the dusty streets of Jiegu, where relief workers estimated 70 per cent to 90 percent of the low-slung town of wood-and-mud housing had collapsed. Hundreds gathered to sleep in a plaza around a 50-foot (15-meter) tall statue of the mythical Tibetan King Gesar, wrapped in blankets taken from homes shattered by Wednesday morning’s quakes.
“There’s nothing to eat. We’ve just been drinking water,” said Zhaxi Zuoma, a 32-year-old camped with thousands of others on a rocky field. They asked a reporter to bring them food the next day.
The official Xinhua News Agency said 760 people had died, 243 people were missing, and 11,477 were injured, 1,174 severely. The strongest of the quakes measured magnitude 6.9 by the U.S. Geological Survey and 7.1 by China’s earthquake administration.
Rescue vehicles snaked along the 12-hour drive from the provincial capital into the mountainous region, which still trembled with aftershocks. The altitude averages about 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), leaving some rescuers breathless and ill. Even the sniffer dogs were affected, Miao Chonggang, deputy director for emergency response under the China Earthquake Administration, told reporters in Beijing.
China Central Television reported that rescuers and equipment were steadily arriving in Yushu to join a third day of search efforts, including more than 50 sets of life detection devices. Workers expected that by Saturday around 40,000 tents would be in place, enough to accommodate all survivors, the report said.
To reinforce official concern for a Tibetan area that saw anti-government protests two years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Yushu county Thursday evening to meet survivors. President Hu Jintao, in Brazil after visiting Washington, canceled scheduled stops in Venezuela and Peru to come home.
“In recent years the Tibetan areas have become more sensitive, and we can’t rule out the possibility that the government could use the earthquake to boost its relationship with Tibetans,” said Zhang Boshu, who has written about Tibet from his post with the philosophy institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
More than 10,000 soldiers, police, fire-fighters and medical workers were already in Yushu as of Thursday, Zou Ming, disaster relief director with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told reporters in Beijing.
The crush of relief efforts left the town’s roads at a standstill. “I’m now stuck in my car, unable to move at all. Trucks and cars are all over,” said Ren Yu, general manager of Yushu Hotel, who said he had been in nearby Dangdai village helping villagers collect bodies.
Officials said they welcomed offers of help from other countries and organizations, but they indicated they didn’t need foreign rescue teams and warned volunteers against going to the region because of limited access and resources there.
But people still arrived from neighbouring areas to look for the dead. Just after dusk, about 20 Buddhist monks in burgundy robes and their friends sat by a pile of smouldering rubble where the Jieji temple used to be. Next to them lay the body of a middle-aged monk, covered in a blanket, with his foot sticking out. Four other bodies were in a nearby car.
“We’ve come to bring their bodies home,” said Silang Pingcuo, who came with the others by motorcycle from neighbouring Tibet.
Apart from tents, officials said food, clothing and quilts were needed, and the limited transportation of the one main road from the provincial capital and a small, now-overworked airport were slowing the delivery of aid. Xinhua reported about 550 injured people would be flown to larger cities for treatment.
Most shops in Jiegu remained shut, and some people scavenged food and other belongings from the rubble. The Ministry of Civil Affairs said about 15,000 houses in Yushu had collapsed.
Local Buddhist monasteries handed out food, but the quake hit them hard as well. Dozens of monks were either dead or missing at the Thrangu monastery, about 6 miles (10 kilometres) outside Jiegu, after all but its main hall collapsed, said Danzeng Qiujiang, a senior cleric at the Xiuma monastery.
“Only seven or eight of the monks are left alive,” he said, adding 60 or 70 remained missing.
But a larger focus in the destruction was collapsed schools, an eerie echo of the massive Sichuan quake in 2008, in which thousands of students died when their poorly built schools collapsed. But unlike in Sichuan -- where schools toppled as other buildings stood -- everything fell over in Yushu.
Xinhua quoted a local education official as saying 66 children and 10 teachers had died, mostly in three schools.
Rescue crews focused on recovering children buried underneath the rubble at the Yushu No. 3 Primary School, said Xu Lai, a spokesman for the Qinghai-based educational NGO Gesanghua.
“Most of the collapsed buildings were the first and third grade classrooms because they were fragile structures made from mud rather than brick and cement,” Xu said.
He said local workers are going to the homes of families to ask if they are missing children.
“We just want them to get in there and save people,” said Suonan, one of the hundreds camping Thursday night on the plaza. Like many Tibetans, she uses just one name.
“Even one survivor gives us hope.”