China today admitted the death toll from this week’s earthquake could be higher than 50,000.
Aid agencies earlier in the week had suggested the official figures were underestimating the scale of the disaster.
And as the confirmed death toll hit 19,509, up from nearly 15,000 yesterday, the government agreed the 50,000 figure.
Tens of thousands of people are still unaccounted for but more than 72 hours after the earthquake hit the relief effort appeared to shift from looking for survivors to searching for bodies.
In Luoshui town, on the road to an industrial zone in Shifang city 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.
Police and militia in Dujiangyan pulverised rubble with cranes while workmen used shovels to pick around larger pieces of debris. On one side street, about a dozen bodies were laid on a sidewalk, while incense sticks placed in a pile of sand sent smoke into the air as a tribute and to dull the stench of death.
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.
Experts said the time for rescues was growing short.
“Generally speaking, anyone buried in an earthquake can survive without water and food for three days,” said university rescue expert Gu Linsheng.
“After that, it’s usually a miracle for anyone to survive.”
The government appealed to the Chinese public calling for donations of rescue equipment including hammers, shovels, demolition tools and rubber boats.
By today more than 130,000 soldiers and police were involved in the relief operation.
“This is only a beginning of this battle, and a long way lies ahead of us,” Vice Health Minister Gao Qiang said.
“We will never give up hope,” he said. “For every thread of hope, our efforts will increase 100-fold. We will never give up.”
Premier Wen Jiabao visited Qingchuan in northern Sichuan province, site of a collapsed school that buried dozens of children, to encourage doctors and nurses aiding the injured.
“The party and the government are grateful to you. The people need you. They see you as a relative. Every act and word of yours represents the government.”
Plans for the Defence Ministry to deploy 100 more helicopters emphasised worries that the death toll will rocket as time runs out for buried survivors.
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 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.
Dujiangyan city was clogged with buses and trucks decked out with banners from companies saying they were offering aid to the disaster area. One tour bus was stuffed full of water bottles, cartons of biscuits and instant noodles.