After China's quake, firemen rise to rescue task

After 20 hours of persistence, Chengdu firemen pulled a man from the rubble of a collapsed hospital.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The voice was faint, but distinct. Peering through a football-sized hole in the rubble and calling into the darkness, Lt. Sun Jian heard an answering call come back.

"See?" the Chengdu fireman said with a grin Thursday. "He's not dead."

Twenty hours earlier, one of Lieutenant Sun's men had eased an ultrasensitive microphone through the chunks of concrete and twisted steel that until last Monday's earthquake had been a hospital practicing traditional Chinese medicine. The device picked up the sound of a heartbeat.

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Now, after a night of picking painstakingly at the rubble, the firemen had opened a hole large enough to give them a view of a man's head, and to lower the occasional bottle of fluids to prevent dehydration.

More important, Sun said, was that the rescue team could talk to the survivor. "We gave him faith and confidence," he said. "We told him not to worry, to trust us, that we would definitely get him out."

Three days after the earthquake that struck a wide swath of Sichuan Province in southwest China last Monday, rescue workers have not given up hope of finding people still alive under the ruins of collapsed buildings.

"At this moment, a life we save has even more value than lives we saved earlier," said Liu Xiaoyi, a spokesman for the Chendu fire department. "Seventy-two hours have passed, and it is very difficult to survive that long."

In this town, where thousands are feared to have perished, firemen found 10 survivors at the hospital site on Thursday, according to Col. Sun Guoli, commander of the 3,000 fire brigade members from 11 provinces who are searching the ruins.

"This is a very large-scale disaster, and sometimes we feel we don't have the strength," she said. "But we have saved 221 people so far and we will continue to do our best. My men have disaster rescue experience and some of them have been trained in America and France. They know how to save people."

Xiao Wei, a 28-year-old who joined the local fire brigade 10 years ago after a stint in the Army, was among the 80 or so firemen working at the site of the collapsed hospital.

Mr. Xiao was on vacation at his parents' place, 10 miles from Dujiangyan, last Monday afternoon when he got the call. When he found his fire brigade, his heart sank; the building where they were working was the building in which he had lived. Somewhere under the rubble, he soon learned, his mother-in-law lay buried.

His particular team, however, was assigned to work at another site. "I really wanted to work on my apartment block," he said. "But I haven't asked to. My brigade has its task and we can't change it. We have to focus on the general picture."

Since reporting for duty on Monday, Xiao said, he had slept for just three hours, grabbing a nap in a car. He is not alone. "None of us have slept for more than a few hours," said Sun.

Instead, he and his men have been using trained rescue dogs, microphones, miniature cameras, and reports from survivors to try to locate people still alive.

By Thursday afternoon, Sun said, they had rescued seven people at the hospital site. They had also found 13 bodies, but many more remain beneath the 30-foot pile of concrete, brick, and plaster, as the slight odor of putrefaction hanging over the site testifies.

Chinese officials warned Thursday the death toll from the earthquake could reach 50,000. The confirmed death toll was 19,509, according to China's Earthquake and Disaster Relief Headquarters. The Associated Press reported a rare government appeal to the Chinese public for donations of rescue equipment, including cranes, hammers, shovels, demolition tools, and rubber boats. Until now, China has refused all offers by international aid groups to send workers. But Thursday, it agreed to allow Japan to send a rescue team.

When the earthquake struck on Monday afternoon, Sun said, the survivor must have been in a corridor by a stairwell. When the hospital collapsed, he was trapped in a cavity beneath the stairs.

"That's why he is still alive," Sun surmised, although three people in the same cavity were dead, the survivor had said.

As the firemen dug away at the aperture they had opened, they found that the corridor had become a 15-foot deep shaft. Somehow, it seemed, the man had climbed up and found a ledge, six feet beneath the surface of the ruins.

He was standing on that ledge, exhausted and almost speechless but otherwise apparently unhurt, when a fireman reached down and secured a harness under his arms. They dragged him into the sunlight early Thursday afternoon.

Outside on the street, an ambulance had backed up to what had been the hospital's rear entrance, sirens blaring as military policemen struggled to hold back the crowd that had gathered, drawn by reports of good news.

A dozen white-coated nurses bearing first aid supplies ran in, and 10 minutes later a clump of firemen stumbled out bearing a stretcher, and a precious cargo: The survivor, a man apparently in his 40s, was wearing a dusty pair of blue pants and was wrapped in an orange fireman's jacket, his eyes masked against the daylight.

As the firemen slid the stretcher into the ambulance, the crowd broke into applause. The ambulance's rear door slammed shut, and the vehicle raced off to a hospital in the provincial capital of Chengdu, 50 miles away.

Even after so many hours, the firemen said they didn't know the survivor's name. The survivor may not have heard them, but if he did, the words of encouragement one fireman had spoken during the lengthy rescue would have been ringing in his ears: "You will have a second chance at life."

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