Rescuers battle roadblocks, high altitude to reach survivors in China earthquake

The death toll in China's earthquake topped 600 on Thursday, as rescue teams pulled 1,000 survivors from the rubble but struggled with the high altitude and lack of heavy equipment.

By , Correspondent

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    Injured survivors take refuge at Yushu airport on Thursday waiting for transfer, one day after a 6.9-magnitude earthquake in western China's Qinghai province.
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Rescue teams scrambled to reach survivors in the remote earthquake zone of China’s Qinghai Province on Thursday, pulling 1,000 people out from the rubble while coping with a lack of heavy equipment, damaged and blocked roads, and high altitude.

One day after a 6.9-magnitude quake struck poor and mountainous Yushu County, the death toll had risen to 617 people. Some 9,000 people were injured, 300 missing, and 100,000 homeless, Zou Ming, the Ministry of Civil Affairs director of disaster relief, told reporters in Beijing.

Rescue workers are still arriving by air and road from across China, as are foreign and local journalists, at the invitation of the provincial government.

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IN PICTURES: Earthquake in China's Qinghai province

"Relief operations face massive difficulties, including severe weather, cold, and altitude sickness," said Miao Chonggang, deputy director of disaster relief at the China Earthquake Administration. Sniffer dogs arriving from outside Qinghai were getting dizzy and short of breath at the 13,000-foot-high area.

Fan Yujuan, a survivor reached by phone, told the Monitor from the Yushu airport that she had seen at least 10 flights had arrived at the damaged facility, built just last year. Normally, the airport receives three flights a week.

"Many soldiers arrived, as well as medical and rescue teams. They also brought here relief for victims and transferred the injured victims away," said Ms. Fan, who spent the night with her family in a tent in a horse-racing stadium.

Fan said water and instant noodles were in shortage, and that some victims were going back to the debris of their homes to dig out supplies.

"Luckily today there are not many aftershocks," said Fan, who was on the third floor of her office when the quake struck at 7:49 am Wednesday morning.

Government mobilizes

In the flattened town of Jiegu, 30 miles from the epicenter, where 15,000 mostly mud and wood homes were destroyed, rescue workers dug for survivors with hands and shovels, Mr. Zou said. In addition to finding 1,000 people, Chinese soldiers also found more than 100 bodies in the rubble.

More than 1,000 people from the Public Security Bureau and a team from the People's Armed Police have been dispatched to Yushu to maintain order, Zou said.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the disaster site on Thursday, China Central Television reported, though it did not show footage of his arrival.

The central government has earmarked an initial 200 million yuan ($29 million) for quake relief, and the Ministry of Civil affairs had dispatched 20,000 tents, 50,000 items of winter clothing and 50,000 quilts from warehouses around the country, Zou said.

Most schools collapsed

Seventy percent of Yushu's schools collapsed in the quake, reported state media, citing the head of the Red Cross chapter in Yushu. Three schools accounted for most of the dead, with 32 students at one primary school and 22 at the Yushu Vocational School.

The quality of school construction became a sensitive topic after 5,335 students died in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake when their shoddily built schools crumbled.

The Yushu and Qinghai governments welcomed accredited journalists from China and overseas to report on rescue efforts. Some provincial authorities have a history of detaining journalists reporting in ethnically Tibetan areas and in disaster zones. Malcolm Moore, correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of Britain, reached by mobile telephone on the main road into Yushu, said on Thursday he had not been stopped.

For travelers to the quake zone, "speed of access is slow because of landslides on roads,” Zhang Xiaodong, deputy director of the China National Earthquake Center told reporters in Beijing.

To reach Yushu from the provincial capital Xining (and nearest major airport) requires a 12- to 18-hour drive through the mountains, and logistical support once there is limited because so many locals were hard-hit by the quake, Mr. Miao said.

Looking for loved ones

In Beijing, Tibetans from Yushu nervously awaited news from loved ones back home. Zhaxi, a Tibetan studying at the Beijing Central University of Nationalities, told the Monitor by phone that he'd reached his brother, a policeman in Xining, who said he was headed for Yushu as a part of a rescue team.

The brothers had heard that several members of their uncle's family died. Neither had been able to reach their parents in Yushu.

"The region suffers from a lack of medical care and emergency rescue resources. Several surrounding towns are still waiting for help to arrive. I don't want to list who died in my uncle's family. I don't want to talk any more," Zhaxi said, then hung up.

Zhang Yajun contributed to this report.

IN PICTURES: Earthquake in China's Qinghai province

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