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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 / May 16, 2008

Out of trouble: A survivor was pulled from a collapsed hospital building in Dujiangyan Thursday, 72 hours after the earthquake in China.

Liu Xiaoyi/Chendu Fire Department


Dujiangyan, China

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.

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"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.

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.