Quake death toll nears 20,000 amid horrors

China began airlifting aid today to the areas worst hit by a massive earthquake, as new reports of casualties were poised to push the death toll close to 20,000.

The shocking new figure includes nearly 80% of one town’s population.

The official Xinhua News Agency said 7,700 people died in Yingxiu town in Wenchuan county, the epicentre of Monday’s 7.9-magnitude earthquake. The number was believed to be in addition to the previously reported death toll of more than 12,000.

Xinhua quoted government officials as saying rescuers who hiked into Yingxiu today found it “much worse than expected”. Of the town’s population of about 10,000, only 2,300 had survived, and 1,000 of them were badly hurt.

The government and its state media has not been clear on death tolls, with some figures not added in, or overlapping with other numbers.

Xinhua said the survivors in Yingxiu “desperately needed medical help, food and water”.

The highway linking Wenchuan county and Dujiangyan near the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu in the south was still cut off nearly 48 hours after the quake.

As the weather cleared after a day of rain, a fleet of military helicopters was seen flying north over Dujiangyan. Xinhua reported that two army helicopters air-dropped food, drinking water and medicine to Yingxiu, with three more en route.

The death toll was also expected to rise because Xinhua said rescuers had still not reached other towns in Wenchuan.

Elsewhere in the area north of Chengdu, there were sad scenes of relatives crying over bodies of loved one.

In Hanwang, about 60 bodies wrapped in plastic were laid out as sobbing relatives walked among them. Feet and hands were sticking through the plastic wrapped around some of the bodies.

Some were covered with tree branches or flowers, and relatives burned paper money to symbolise use in the afterlife.

As that happened, rescue workers in blue uniforms were bringing more bodies out of the Dongqi sports arena. It was not known if they were from Hanwang or other areas.

Most of the buildings in Hanwang, which is surrounded by mountains, had been left in twisted piles by the quake, and cranes were tearing down what was left of any buildings still standing.

Further north in An Xian, on the road to Beichuan, a hard-hit area on the edge of the quake’s epicentre, a group of survivors huddled by the road in a makeshift tent to protect them from the rain.

Government buses have carried some survivors out of Beichaun, but Li Zizhong, a 38-year-old farmer, said he had not heard from his relatives there yet.

“Who knows what happened to them,” Mr Li said.

“All we need is a little something to eat. I’m just happy to be alive.”

Li and a friend, Zhang Mingfu, 44, had built a wood and plastic shelter with a straw floor where about 30 family members spent the night. Their destroyed homes were in the background.

“I feel lucky. It’s the people in the mountains that we are worrying about, they are our relatives,” Mr Zhang said.

Authorities had blocked the road to Beichuan to regular traffic to allow rescue vehicles access.

Premier Wen Jiabao stopped at a school in Beichuan county today where two classroom buildings collapsed in the earthquake. The school with 2,000 pupils sustained “heavy casualties”, broadcaster China Central Television reported.

“The party and the government are concerned about you. Your pain is our pain,” Mr Wen told earthquake victims who were living in Red Cross tents, his arms wrapped around two little girls and a sombre-faced woman.

Mianyang, an industrial city of 700,000 people and home to the headquarters of China’s nuclear weapons design industry, had turned into a thronging refugee camp.

The devastation and ramped-up rescue across a large, heavily populated region of farms and factory towns strained local governments. Food dwindled on the shelves of the few stores that remained open. Petrol was scarce, with long lines outside some stations and pumps marked “empty”.

The government’s high-gear response aimed to reassure Chinese while showing the world it was capable of handling the disaster and was ready for the August 8-24 Olympics in Beijing. Although the government said it welcomed outside aid, officials said it would accept only money and supplies, not foreign personnel.

Bowing to public calls, Beijing Olympics organisers scaled down the boisterous ongoing torch relay, with today’s leg in the south-eastern city of Ruijin beginning with a minute of silence. The torch is due to arrive in quake-hit areas next month.

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