Volunteers flood in but China quake toll rising

In one Sichuan town, Chinese relief workers fill the streets as the overall death toll nears 15,000.

Ng Han Guan/AP
STREETS OF SICHUAN: Three days after the quake, residents are living in the streets, often fed by volunteers.
Little left standing: Chinese soldiers are just arriving in remote areas of Beichuan county, about 100 miles northeast of the epicenter.

Both the horror and the hope engendered by natural catastrophes were on display here Wednesday in one of the towns worst hit by the earthquake that has claimed at least 15,000 lives in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan.

The horror lies not just in the death toll, though that is rising by the day.

It lies, rather, in the despair in Liu Ping's dark eyes as he wheels the body of his only son up the main street of this devastated town on Wednesday afternoon.

The hope emerged in a wave of community solidarity that has flooded Hanwang with volunteer relief workers eager to alleviate the suffering.

The awfulness lies, too, in the manner in which a woman, who identifies herself only as Mrs. Wu, chips with a small iron bar at the huge pile of rubble that had been her home, searching for a few pieces of clothing.

"All I have left now is what I am wearing," she says.

It lies in the exhausted voice of a local official as he explains to a hysterical woman that he does not have enough men to excavate the ruins where she is convinced her family is trapped.

"We must all coordinate the rescue effort together," Xu Wenchun insists.

But even as hundreds of thousands of people in the stricken zone of southwest China camped out for a third night, fearing seismic aftershocks, many are being succored by the earthquake's social aftershocks.

The streets of Hanwang, some 40 miles northeast of the quake's epicenter, are swarming with volunteers, identified by yellow ribbons tied above their elbows, who have come from other towns in Sichuan to help the relief effort.

Ducking into the makeshift shelters that residents have built from plastic sheeting, parasols, matting, and anything else that came to hand, volunteers distribute bottled water, food, and medicine.

"It's natural," says Yang Gongma, a physics teacher from the nearby city of Deyang, who has come with a group of colleagues to hand out relief supplies. "We felt the earthquake too, and we survived, so we think we should do anything we can."

"If one part of China has problems, help should come from eight other directions," says Luo Jingui, quoting a Chinese proverb, as he leads a team of employees in distributing food and water. Founder of a car dealership and driving school, Mr. Luo says that he commandeered 30 of his company's vehicles, filled them with relief supplies, and brought his entire workforce to Hanwang.

The road into the area around Hanwang was filled with relief supply vehicles of all sorts: from Army trucks decorated with red banners exhorting people to "raise the flag and follow the party," to pickup trucks boasting corporate logos and personal vehicles flying yellow ribbons from their antennae, offering volunteers free rides.

Government soldiers, who have spearheaded emergency rescue operations, concentrated on the worst of the disaster areas in town, where large numbers of people remained trapped on Wednesday afternoon.

Though some residents here complain that nobody is helping them to retrieve their belongings from collapsed houses, or to search for loved ones in their homes, "the first thing we need to do is to rescue people and dig out dead bodies or they will spread disease," says Mr. Xu, deputy head of the town's Communist Party organization.

Some two dozen Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers are using probes, sniffer dogs, heavy machinery and cement saws on the collapsed ruins of a primary school where Mr. Liu's son had studied, but hopes are fading that any of the children trapped in the ruins would be found alive.

Only five had been rescued by Wednesday, and rescuers say they have heard no cries since the morning. Most of the bodies retrieved were found in what remained of the stairwell, indicating that the children were attempting to flee. "There will be at least a thousand dead" in the primary school and neighboring secondary school, says one PLA rescue worker, Chang Lei, as he takes a break. "And I don't expect we will find any more survivors."

Reports are similarly grim 30 miles west into the mountains, nearer the earthquake's epicenter. By Wednesday evening only parachutists and helicopter-borne medical teams had reached the counties, such as Beichuan, Wenchuan, and Ping Wu, where the damage is reported to be heaviest.

After two days of heavy rain, better weather Wednesday made airborne operations easier, but roads into the worst-hit regions remained blocked by landslides, rendering large-scale assistance impossible.

"Getting to those places is harder than climbing to the sky," says Liu Leiming, a spokesman for the local government in Mianyang, the nearest city.

Reports from Beichuan Province suggest that as many as 80 percent of the buildings in that town have collapsed.

Such reports are of little consequence to Liu Ping as he leans wearily against the street-food stand on which he has laid the body of his 11-year-old son Chengjun, along with the paper money and joss sticks required for a Chinese burial.

He has covered the boy's torso with a piece of checkered blue-and-white cloth, but his sneakers and white socks are visible.

"The government has asked people to bury their family members themselves, and I am taking my son home to bury him there," Liu says. "But I don't have the strength to push him any farther."

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