Search continues as death toll rises to 702

By Peng Yining, Shen Gang and Hu Yinan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-10 07:04
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Search continues as death toll rises to 702
The image on the left shows the town of Zhouqu, Gansu province, in July 2008. The photo on the right was taken on Sunday following the landslide. [China Daily]

Latest: ZHOUQU, Gansu - The death toll from a massive rain-triggered mudslide in Zhouqu County of northwest China's Gansu Province has risen to 702 as of Tuesday afternoon, with 1,042 others still missing, local civil affairs authorities told a news conference.

ZHOUQU, Gansu - Rescuers armed mostly with shovels, hoes and rope continued to search for survivors two days after a landslide leveled this county in Gansu province.

The death toll from the disaster rose to 337, with 1,148 others still missing, Chen Jianhua, Party chief of the Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, said on Monday night.

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Chen said 218 injured survivors had received treatment in local hospitals, and 41 severely injured ones had been transferred to hospitals in the provincial capital, Lanzhou, as of 4:30 pm.

The rain-triggered mudslides that swept Zhouqu in Gannan of Gansu on Sunday morning were considered the country's worst in six decades.

Soldiers from the Lanzhou Military Area Command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) used explosives to blast a blockage on the Bailong River at 8:18 am on Monday, a spokesman for the emergency rescue headquarters said.

Armed police officers later cleared the debris with excavators, allowing water from a lake to drain at 95 cubic meters per second and lowering - by about 1 meter - the level of water that had submerged many parts of the county seat, the spokesman said.

A total of eight explosions were carried out during the day, eliminating immediate hazards from a bursting lake.

With more rain forecast for the week - heavy rain has been forecast for Thursday - more disasters are feared if the natural dam bursts. Authorities have already evacuated thousands of residents downstream as a precaution.

Rescuers saved 71-year-old Yang Jinfeng at 9:50 am on Monday, 36 hours after she was trapped in an apartment.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who arrived at the county to oversee rescue operations immediately after the tragedy, urged search and rescue workers on Sunday evening to continue working "as long as the possibility for finding survivors still exists".

The premier instructed the rescuers to locate places where most people were buried or trapped and to clear the sludge as soon as possible. Traffic, power supply and telecommunications should also be resumed in the shortest time possible, Wen said.

"People who have been evacuated should be taken good care of," he said.

As bottled water was running out in Zhouqu, local authorities also carried out tests on water in the Bailong River, which runs through the county seat, to determine if it was safe for drinking after being processed.

Apart from a local water truck that sent five tons of water on Monday, a small tent operated by the local Red Cross unit appeared to be the only public venue distributing free water supplies to local residents.

The 10 sq m tent, located at Zhouqu No 3 Middle School, began giving out bottled water and instant noodles to residents three times a day starting at 11 am on Monday.

Each resident was entitled to a bottle of water and a pack of instant noodles for every meal. More than 1,000 people had taken their share in just a few hours, said Yangcai Rangcao, a member of the local Red Cross unit.

But the supplies, which came from Zhouqu's neighboring Tewo county, are also running short, she said.

Feng Yongjuan, a 35-year-old mother carrying her 1-year-old son, searched throughout the town for water on Monday only to find that all bottled water had been sold out.

Feng received one bottle of water from the Red Cross tent and had to head back to a nearby brook more than an hour's walk away for more supplies. "The water there is nearly dried up too," Feng said.

Local hospitals carrying out routine disinfections also struggled from limited water supplies.

Shen Hongchang, a staff member of the Zhouqu center for disease control and prevention, said family members had claimed most of the bodies recovered in the disaster. Bodies that remained unaccounted for by Tuesday would be disinfected and buried together, he said.

A Ministry of Health official said public hygiene was getting worse as corpses started to decompose. Lack of public toilets and increasing garbage added to the problem.

Psychological counseling services are set to start on Tuesday, he said.

Meanwhile, a number of stores partly damaged by the landslide reopened for business on Monday.

Local shopkeeper Ma Nai, 30, who runs a 4-sq-m store selling one-yuan baked pancakes, also gave out the pancakes to soldiers for free "to thank them for their rescue efforts".

The Ministry of Commerce announced that it has ordered relief supplies to the county, including 16,700 tents, 110,000 blankets, 222,000 cotton coats, 333,000 electric torches and four million candles.

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, Minister of Land and Resources Xu Shaoshi listed several causes for Sunday's disaster: The county's loose, weathered terrain that is prone to landslides; the massive earthquake of 2008 in neighboring Sichuan province that shook the mountains around Zhouqu; sustained drought and soil erosion in the region since last winter; and torrential rain that lasted for more than 40 minutes on Saturday night.

When the 8.0-magnitude quake struck Wenchuan county in Sichuan in May 2008, Zhouqu reported 15 deaths and 59 injuries.

Xinhua contributed to this story.