Rescuers were Tuesday night racing against time to find survivors a day after the strongest quake to hit China in 32 years jolted Sichuan province, demolishing buildings and burying tens of thousands beneath the rubble.
Hundreds of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers entered Wenchuan county, the epicenter, on Tuesday and pulled more than 1,000 people from debris, according to the disaster relief headquarters of the Chengdu Military Command.
It was not clear how many had survived. Earlier reports said 3,000 people of the town’s total population of 12,000 were known to have survived.
The confirmed national death toll reached 12,300 by 2 am Wendesday, nearly all of them in Sichuan, according to the temporary disaster relief headquarters headed by Premier Wen Jiabao, who arrived in Dujiangyan to oversee the rescue work hours after the quake.
Another 9,404 were buried in debris, 7,841 were missing and 26,206 people were injured, according to the headquarters.
“We will try our best to send milk powder to parents and ensure children do not go hungry,” he said on Tuesday after learning that some infants were running short of food and many people needed drinking water and tents.
Wen was visiting cities worst hit by the quake, including Dujiangyan, Deyang and Mianzhu.
He said the rescue work had entered a crucial stage and asked people to remain calm, confident and united as he inspected a factory in Mianzhu and urged officials to ensure rapid distribution of food.
He comforted a crying child, saying, “Don’t cry. Food will be sent in a short time. Biscuits and milk powder will be sent in a short time.”
He told villagers: “I know some of your family and friends have died. We are deeply saddened. Some people are still trapped. We will do our utmost to rescue them.”
The premier ordered that all rocks and mudslides blocking roads to the epicenter be cleared by midnight.
“People are trapped in the debris; we must seize every second,” he told an emergency meeting.
Xia Guofu, Sichuan provincial military commander, led a team of more than 300 soldiers into Wenchuan and more troops were expected imminently, said Ye Wanyong, political commissar of the command.
Rescuers who arrived at Yingxiu Town of Wenchuan on foot Tuesday afternoon said the town was inaccessible by road.
The soldiers reported more than 70 percent of the roads in the town damaged, and almost all bridges had collapsed. Many people were believed to be under the debris.
Previous attempts by rescuers to reach the epicenter “by land, air and water” failed because of landslides, telecommunication breakdown and rain, an official with the Sichuan provincial relief headquarters said.
50,000 soldiers mobilized
As of Tuesday night, nearly 20,000 soldiers and armed policemen had arrived in Sichuan province, with 30,000 more troops advancing toward the quake-hit regions by planes, trains and trucks, and on foot, the Ministry of Defense said.
A large number of search and rescue workers are urgently needed in quake-hit areas, an official with the Ministry of Civil Affairs said on Tuesday.
Wang Zhenyao, director of the disaster relief department of the ministry, told a press conference on Tuesday that people trapped in collapsed buildings could survive for up to a week.
According to Wang, transportation hurdles and the huge number of victims were the two major difficulties facing rescue and relief workers.
Meanwhile, huge amounts of relief materials are required, Wang said, adding that up to 60,000 tents are needed in Mianyang alone, putting further pressure on transport.
Wang, while expressing appreciation for all domestic and foreign donations, said conditions were “not yet ripe” to allow foreign rescue teams into the country.
“At this point, transportation in affected areas is still blocked and it is impossible even for our own rescue teams to reach the disaster-hit areas,” he said.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman on Tuesday also welcomed the international community’s aid to China’s relief efforts.
Many international organizations and foreign leaders have expressed sympathy and pledged to offer help.
Qin Gang told a news briefing that no casualties of foreigners in quake-affected area had been reported.
A group of 31 British tourists have arrived safe in Chengdu, Qin Gang late on Tuesday.
The 31 British tourists encountered the massive quake Monday afternoon on their way back from a tour to Wolong, and all of them finally returned to Chengdu safe without any casualty or injury, with the assistance of the police of Dujiangyan, a city near Chengdu, according to Qin.
A 40-car freight train carrying gasoline derailed and caught fire in neighboring Gansu during the quake and was still burning Tuesday evening, a railway official said. One injury was reported.
The train, including 13 tank cars filled with gasoline, derailed and burst into flames on Monday in Gansu province when the quake cut a major rail line, Wang Yongping, spokesman for the Ministry of Railways said.
It was still on fire more than 26 hours after the accident, Xinhua News Agency reported.
The heat of the fire could be felt 100 m away.
Wang said all the railway lines affected by the quake in Sichuan province had been reopened, apart from the line with the burning freight train. That railway runs from Baoji in Shaanxi province to Guangyuan in Sichuan.
The earthquake left trains and passengers stranded on major rail lines leading to Chengdu, Xinhua said. At least 149 cargo trains and 31 passenger trains were affected and passengers were being moved to safety yesterday.
Water resources authorities issued an emergency warning after water projects suffered severe damage in the quake.
According to E Jingping, vice-minister of water resources, the quake has resulted in the damage of “a considerable number of water projects”.
“Given that water reservoirs are prone to risks, dam collapses might lead to mass casualties if inspections and rescue work are not conducted in a timely manner,” E told Xinhua after an urgent video conference with the water authorities in Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan, Gansu and Shaanxi.
In another development, organizers of the Beijing Olympic Games said on Tuesday that a minute’s silence will be observed during future stops of the torch relay to mourn the victims of the quake.
The relay is scheduled to head to Jiangxi province on Wednesday as it continues its three-month journey through the country.
“All participants of the torch relay will observe one minute of silence at the beginning of the “Donation centers will also be set up along the route of the relay.”
Li Zhanjun, a BOCOG spokesman, said earlier yesterday that there were no plans to change the relay’s route in Sichuan.
The torch is to be carried through seven towns and cities in Sichuan from June 15 to 18. They include Mianyang and Guanghuan, both hit hard in the quake.