China issued a rare public appeal for rescue equipment today as it struggled to cope with the aftermath of this week’s earthquake.
More than 72 hours after it devastated an area the size of Belgium, rescue operations appeared to shift from searching wrecked buildings for survivors to the grim duty of searching for bodies – with nearly 15,000 confirmed dead so far.
Outside Shifang city, on the road to an industrial zone 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.
In Dujiangyan, police and militia pulverised rubble with cranes. On one side street, about a dozen bodies were laid on a pavement, 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 on to a 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.
The official death toll stood at 14,866, and in Sichuan province more than 27,000 people were buried or missing, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
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.
“I was confident that you were coming to rescue me. I’m alive. I’m so happy,” she said.
The government appealed to the public for donations of rescue equipment including hammers, shovels, demolition tools and rubber boats. The plea on the Ministry of Information Industry’s website said, for example, that 100 cranes were needed.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also issued an emergency appeal for medical help, food, water and tents.
Gu Qinghui, the federation’s disaster management director for East Asia who visited Beichuan county near the epicentre, said more than four million homes were shattered across the quake area.
“The whole county has been destroyed. Basically there is no Beichuan county anymore,” he said, adding the death toll was certain to rise.
Plans for the Defence Ministry to deploy 101 more helicopters underscored worries that the toll will rocket 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.
Roads were cleared to two key areas that felt the brunt of the quake’s force, with workers making it to the border of Wenchuan county at the epicentre and also through to hard-hit Beichuan county.
Roads to the epicentre had been blocked by debris since the 7.9 magnitude quake, preventing rescuers from moving heavy equipment to the worst-affected areas. Previously, soldiers riding to isolated mountain villages on helicopters and small boats had been forced to dig for survivors with their hands.
The Chengdu Military Area Command also planned to airdrop 50,000 packets of food, 5,000 cotton-padded quilts and clothes there, part of the military rescue operation that has grown to more than 116,000 soldiers and police.
Three mountainous towns north of the provincial capital of Chengdu were still cut off with 20,000 residents trapped in Qingping, Jinhua and Tianchi.
As the rescue effort gathered momentum, the depth of the problem of tens of thousands homeless stretched government resources.
North of Chengdu in Deyang, the largest town near the devastated areas of Hanwang and Mianyang, thousands of people have streamed into the city hospital since Monday, most with injuries.
Patients heavily wrapped in bandages and with cuts and bruises were huddled in canvas tents in the hospital’s parking lot.