Creaking dam adds to earthquake survivors' fears

Thousands of troops are tonight fighting to plug dangerous cracks in a dam above an earthquake-hit Chinese town.

Zipingpu Reservoir is upstream from Dujiangyan which was near the epicentre of the 7.9-magnitude quake.

China’s top economic planning body said today that the earthquake had damaged 391 dams. It said two of the dams were large and 28 were medium-sized.

The official Xinhua news agency said the ministry had set up an emergency command centre at the dam.

The death toll from the quake may already by more than 50,000.

Official figures put it at nearly 15,000 with 26,000 still buried in rubble and 14,000 missing in Sichuan province alone.

Sichuan had other major dam projects, including the massive Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest about 350 miles to the east of the epicentre, but officials said it escaped undamaged.

He Biao, the director of the Aba Disaster Relief headquarters in northern Sichuan, said there were also concerns over dams closer to the epicentre.

“Currently, the most dangerous problems are several reservoirs near Wenchuan,” he said.

“There are already serious problems with the Tulong Reservoir on the Min River. It may collapse. If that happens, it would affect several power plants below and be extremely dangerous,” he said.

Elsewhere as help began to arrive in some of the hardest-to-reach areas, some victims trapped for more than two days under collapsed buildings were still being pulled out alive.

But the enormous scale of the devastation meant that resources were stretched thin, and makeshift aid stations and refugee centers were springing up over a disaster area the size of Belgium.

Xinhua said rescuers who walked into the city of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county, the epicentre the quake, found it “much worse than expected.”

Confusion remained over the official figures. It was not clear if the death toll included the 7,700 reported dead in Yingxiu and whether the figures applied to only Sichuan province or included other areas where the quake struck.

The toll was expected to rise further once rescuers reach other towns in Wenchuan that remain cut off from the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu more than two days after the quake.

Roads leading to Wenchuan from all directions were still being cleared of debris.

At a middle school Sichuan province’s Qingchuan county where students were taking a noon nap when the quake demolished a three-story building, 178 children were confirmed dead in the rubble and another 23 remained missing..

In the Beichuan region, a three-year-old girl who was trapped for more than 40 hours under the bodies of her parents was pulled to safety, Xinhua said.

Rescuers found Song Xinyi yesterday, but were unable to extricate her immediately due to fears the debris above her would collapse. She was fed and shielded from the rain until rescuers extricated her from the rubble.

Premier Wen Jiabao toured the disaster area in an attempt at reassuring the public about the government’s response and to show the world that the country is ready to host the Beijing Olympics in August.

Today’s leg of the Olympic torch relay in the south-eastern city of Ruijin began with a minute of silence.

East of the epicentre in the town of Hanwang rescuers carried yet more bodies to a makeshift morgue at the Dongqi sports arena. The dead appeared to have come from heavily damaged apartments and a school behind the arena, where people stood in stunned shock.

One of the town’s hospitals was obliterated, and another the seven-storey one collapsed, its third floor suddenly smashing to the ground. People on the upper floors climbed out on bed sheets tied together.

Surviving medical staff set up a triage centre in the driveway of a tire factory, but could only provide basic care.

“The first day hundreds of kids died when a school collapsed. The rest who came in had serious injuries. There was so little we could do for them,” said Zhao Xiaoli, a nurse.

“There will be a lot more people. So many still haven’t been found,” she said.

Residents complained that delays in aid had caused more deaths in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

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