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Article---Death and destruction in an instant
By Gong Yidong, China Features


When rescuers discovered the three-year-old Song Xinyi, she was huddled in the corner of the ruined building. Her head and shoulders could be seen, but her legs were buried under her parents' legs, who were already dead. She could still talk after more than 40 hours trapped in the debris.

Song chatted about her favorite TV programs after surviving the devastating May 12 earthquake, which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale and centered on Wenchuan County in southwest China's Sichuan Province. The earthquake, the largest and also the worst in China since the 1976 Tangshan catastrophe, had claimed the lives of 34,073 Chinese as of May 19.

Heavy Casualties

With a population of 111,800, Wenchuan lies in the southeast part of the Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Aba, 146 kilometers northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. The county is home to the Wolong Nature Reserve, China's leading research and breeding base for endangered giant pandas.

Government statistics released on Monday showed that 245,108 people were injured in the tremor. More than 50,000 people were feared dead in Sichuan, the rescue headquarters of the State Council, China's cabinet, said.

Apart from the victims in Sichuan Province, 280 people were killed in Gansu Province, 106 in Shaanxi Province, 14 in Chongqing Municipality, two in Henan Province, one in Yunnan Province and one in Hubei Province.

More than ten counties and cities in Sichuan were hit by the quake. Casualty figures are still rising. In the hardest hit town of Yingxiu, only 2,300 people out of a population of 10,000 were assumed to have survived.

More than 70 percent of the roads in the affected areas were damaged, and numerous bridges have collapsed. Adding to the woe is the electricity and telecommunications blackout.

The central government has allocated 2.24 billion yuan (320 million US dollars) in emergency relief for quake-hit areas. Meanwhile, domestic and international donations have reached 10.834 billion yuan (1.547 billion US dollars) in both cash and goods, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Approximately 150,000 soldiers, armed police and paramilitary personnel have been dispatched for search and rescue and other disaster relief work, military sources said.

The earthquake is comparable to, or even worse than the 1976 Tangshan earthquake both in scale and power, said Zhang Guomin, a research fellow with the Institute of Earthquake Science under China Earthquake Administration.

Unlike the Tangshan earthquake, the quake in Wenchuan has resulted in massive geological disasters as it occurred in a mountainous area, he said.

"The town had disappeared in front of my eyes"

Liu Jianqiang, a fruit seller from Juyuan Town, of Dujiangyan City, still shudders in horror recalling the devastating earthquake.

That afternoon, Liu was driving his mini-truck to the local hospital to sell fruit.

"The moment I parked the truck in front of the hospital, I heard rumbling noises and the truck shook violently."

Liu had read about the Tangshan Earthquake, so he quickly realized what was happening. "I jumped off my truck, grabbed a small tree and crouched on the ground. My truck jumped up and down, like it was dancing."

Within seconds, the hospital garage, the newly built police station, the courthouse, the aluminum factory and the cement factory had been razed to the ground. The hospital was intact, but huge cracks appeared in the wall. "I couldn't speak. The town had disappeared in front of my eyes, instantly."

Soon after the earthquake, the government collected all the food in the town to prevent plundering and hoarding.

"In the past two days, every one of the 6,000 residents has had only a half bowl of porridge a day. The food supply is running out. I've donated my 1,500 kg of fruit."

Two days later, they decided to take action rather than wait passively for help. Liu and other residents made simple stretchers and carried the injured to Dujiangyan city for treatment.

"There was no path. All the roads were blocked by landslides or mud. We had no option, but to wind our way through. On the way, we felt many aftershocks. Some stones were as large as a two-storey building and the Min Jiang River turned yellow and red."

Bravery in the Darkness

In the face of this severe adversity, many Chinese have shown bravery, confidence and unity.

Zhu Fumin, a senior high school student at Beichuan No.1 Middle School about 160 kilometers northwest of the epicenter, Wenchuan, was acclaimed as a hero for his calm, courage and quick thinking that saved 33 lives.

The 15-year-old ordered everyone to "lie flat on the floor" when the quake jolted their classroom, said classmate Dai Yingying.

Most of the teenagers copied him by hiding under their desks. In the dark some began to scream and cry. "Zhu told us to stay calm and to conserve our energy," said Dai.

After a few minutes the students calmed down. Some used their cell phones as lights and found the ceiling had toppled. Several students were stuck between the ceiling and the desks.

After about an hour, Zhu heard noises outside the wall, and found a little hole. He shouted through the hole for help, and found some teachers and students, who had been having a gym class in the playground when the quake struck, were digging away the rubble.

Zhu and another boy joined them and with all their might, they tore a gap on the wall through which 33 of all the 65 students escaped.

The main building of the school collapsed when the quake hit at about 2:28 p.m., burying 1,000 students and teachers.

Dangers ahead

As of May 17, the rescue forces had saved 33,434 victims, but they still face many difficulties.

To date, there has been no reported large-scale epidemic in Sichuan Province, but it is a crucial moment for disease control, said Feng Zijian, an expert from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the other hand, many people have acted to help, but their enthusiasm often hindered their own initiatives and those of the professional emergency workers, said an official of Chinese Communist Youth League, China's largest youth organization.

On March 15, the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) forecast the rain in the quake-stricken areas would ease over the next week, improving conditions for rescue and relief work.

However, previous rainfall, coupled with the devastating quake, will add to the probability of landslides, collapses or mud-rock flows in Sichuan and western Yunnan Province.

Another hidden danger comes from the dams. Water resources authorities have issued an emergency warning after water projects suffered severe damage in the quake.

E Jingping, vice minister of water resources, said the quake had damaged "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 said.

Sichuan is home to a number of major water projects, including the south-to-north water diversion project and the Three Gorges Dam.


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