Image: Troops search for quake victims
China Photos  /  Getty Images
Chinese troops stand on the debris of a collapsed elementary school on the outskirts of Shifang on Wednesday while looking for victims of Monday's massive earthquake in Sichuan province.
updated 5/15/2008 12:52:33 AM ET 2008-05-15T04:52:33

The Chinese government has issued a public plea for rescue equipment to aid in the search of survivors from this week's massive earthquake, state media reported Thursday.

A government ministry was asking citizens for equipment ranging from hammers, shovels and demolition tools to cranes and rubber boats, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Soldiers on W4ednesday rushed to shore up a dam cracked by Monday's 7.9 earthquake, and rescuers came by helicopter and ship into the isolated epicenter but still were forced to dig for survivors with their bare hands.

Nearly 26,000 people remained buried in collapsed buildings, and the death toll of almost 15,000 was expected to climb as relief operations spread into the mountains of Sichuan province. The quake triggered landslides that blocked roads to hardest-hit areas.

Even as the rescue effort seemed to gather momentum — speeded by clearing weather after two days of rain — caring for tens of thousands of people left homeless across the disaster zone have stretched thin the government's resources.

Victims begged for aid on roadsides, and people settled in for a third night in a growing sprawl of refugee camps littered with garbage. In Hanwang, a town in one of the hardest-hit counties, survivors stood hoping for handouts from cars, jostling with each other to reach to one vehicle where a passenger passed bottled water out the window.

"I'm numb," said Zhao Xiaoli, a 25-year-old nurse working at a makeshift triage center in tire factory driveway. "The first day, hundreds of kids died when a school collapsed. The rest who came in had serious injuries. There was so little we could do for them."

Four-inch cracks in dam
Damage to the two-year-old Zipingpu Dam threatened downstream communities still digging out from the quake. Some 2,000 soldiers were sent to the dam on Wednesday, Xinhua reported.

Four-inch cracks scarred the top of the dam, and landslides had poured down the surrounding hills, the business news magazine Caijing said on its Web site in a report from the scene.

Although the government pronounced the dam safe late Tuesday after an inspection, Caijing said its waters were being emptied to relieve pressure.

The Ministry of Water Resources issued a notice to check reservoirs nationwide, while the economic planning agency said nearly 400 dams, most of them small, were damaged by the quake.

Hundreds of rivers snake through the mountainous Tibetan plateau before descending into the fertile Sichuan basin where they provide critical irrigation.

The activist group International Rivers Network was involved in a campaign in 2001 and 2002 to protest funding for the Zipingpu Dam because of its proximity to a fault line, said Aviva Imhoff, the group's campaigns director.

Imhoff said the group obtained transcripts of a 2000 internal government meeting in which seismologists warned officials of the dangers of constructing the dam and the potential for it to be damaged in an earthquake, Imhoff said.

The massive Three Gorges dam, the world's largest, is about 350 miles east of the epicenter. The information office of State Council Three Gorges Construction Committee said earlier this week that there was no damage to the dam.

Official toll nears 15,000
The official death toll rose Wednesday to 14,866, and in Sichuan province another 25,788 people were buried and 1,405 were missing, provincial vice governor Li Chengyun said, according to Xinhua.

An already massive military operation gathered pace with close to 100,000 soldiers and police mobilized. After two days of rain that prevented relief flights, People's Liberation Army helicopters flew 90 sorties to the epicenter in Wenchuan county and other areas to drop food, medicine and tents and ferry out 156 injured people, Xinhua reported.

Aerial TV footage showed rows of small buildings flattened in Yingxiu in Wenchuan county, where rescuers who hiked in said they found only 2,300 survivors in the town of about 10,000, with another 1,000 badly hurt, Xinhua reported.

Video: Rescue efforts encounter obstacles The scale of the devastation is raising questions about the quality of China's recent construction boom. Some builders cut corners, especially in outlying areas largely populated by the very young and very old.

With help slow in arriving, some fled Yingxiu on foot, carrying injured family members in wheelbarrows. One woman "carried a dead infant wrapped in white clothes as if the baby was alive," the agency said, citing a reporter who hiked to the area with military rescue teams.

Ships from a temporary dock built at a reservoir sailed to Yingxiu, but blocked roads meant heavy digging equipment could not be brought in. Most rescuers were using their hands, Xinhua reported.

The death toll from the quake was expected to rise when rescuers reach other towns in Wenchuan county that are still cut off.

"The Communist Party Central Committee has not forgotten this place," Premier Wen Jiabao said after flying by helicopter to Wenchuan.

President Hu Jintao presided at an emergency meeting of the party's powerful Politburo, urging the military, police and others to redouble rescue and relief efforts.

Unlike previous natural disasters in China, official media have reported prominently on the quake, and state TV replaced regular programming with 24-hour coverage.

Scenes of destruction and death have been shown with a prominent focus on Wen, the normally staid leadership's most popular member who has been shown crawling into collapsed buildings to urge survivors to hang on with impassioned pleas and reassuring children who lost parents.

Amid the tragedy, some miracles
Amid the tragedy, onlookers erupted into cheers and applause when a 34-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant was rescued after spending 50 hours under debris in the Dujiangyan area.

"It's a miracle brought about by us all working together," said Sun Guoli, fire chief of the nearby provincial capital, Chengdu, who supervised the rescue.

But the rescuers called off the search for four others still trapped in the collapsed building, leaving only a smaller crew of dogs to sniff for signs of life.

In Hanwang, the smell of incense hung over a crowd of sobbing relatives who walked among some 60 bodies wrapped in plastic, some covered with tributes of branches or flowers. Nearby, rescuers carried more bodies out of a makeshift morgue at the Dongqi sports arena.

People from the town and surrounding areas packed into blue tents provided by relief officials. Though the mostly older buildings in the town collapsed, a newer Western-style clock tower still stood, its hands stopped at 2:27 — the time the quake hit.

Schoolchildren confirmed dead
At a middle school Sichuan province's Qingchuan county where students were taking a noon nap when the quake demolished a three-story building, 178 children were confirmed dead in the rubble and another 23 remained missing, Xinhua said.

Storms that had prevented flights to some of the worst-hit areas finally cleared on Wednesday. Military helicopters were seen flying north over Dujiangyan, and Xinhua said two of them airdropped food, drinking water and medicine to Yingxiu.

Trains were on their way to Sichuan carrying quilts, drinking water, tents and military personnel, Ministry of Railways spokesman Wong Yongping said. All railways in the province were working except for a line where a 40-car freight train was trapped by a landslide in a tunnel and burned, he said.

Wednesday's leg of the Olympic torch relay in the southeastern city of Ruijin began with a minute of silence.

The Mianzhu No. 3 Hospital was obliterated, and the seven-story main Hanwang Hospital collapsed. Surviving medical staff set up the triage center in the tire factory driveway, but could only provide basic care.

Emergency vehicle sirens sounded every few minutes. An ambulance drove in, delivering a man pulled from the rubble and covered in dust.

"There will be a lot more people. So many still haven't been found," said Zhao, the nurse.

Farther north in An Xian, disaster victims huddled by the road in front of their destroyed homes under a makeshift wood-and-plastic shelter to protect them from the rain. Government buses have brought some survivors from devastated areas, but 38-year-old farmer Li Zizhong said he had not heard from his relatives there yet.

"Who knows what happened to them?" Li said. "All we need is a little something to eat. I'm just happy to be alive."

Disorienting episodes added to the struggle for survival in much of the disaster zone. The Mianyang city government ordered its 700,000 residents to evacuate all buildings between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. because an aftershock was predicted.

In Chengdu, water to some parts of the city was cut for repairs, touching off a rumor that the supply was contaminated. People began hoarding water, and water pressure citywide dropped before a senior official went on TV to deny anything was wrong.

Delays in aid
Residents complained that delays in aid had caused more deaths in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

Zhang Chuanlin, a 27-year-old factory worker, said his 52-year-old mother was trapped while watching television with her friend. No rescue workers were around so he started to dig by himself.

"No one was helping me and then two strangers came and dug through the rubble. They found her an hour later," he said. "When they pulled her out I couldn't look, I just couldn't look when they pulled her out."

A man who gave only his surname Li said he had suffered a double tragedy. His wife was killed while watching TV with Zhang's mother and his daughter died when her school collapsed.

The child did not die right away and could be heard saying, "Please help me daddy, please rescue me," right after the earthquake, he said, but there were no authorities to save her.

In Dujiangyan, a mother pleaded with police for information about her husband who was working in Wenchuan, blocking one of the few roads leading to the epicenter.

"I've begged and begged them to help me look for my husband," Li Zhenhua said, showing her husbands ID card to a crowd of onlookers. "I can't go by myself because I've got a little baby and elderly parents here, so I can't leave."

"The government is doing nothing for us. The government won't help us," she said, over and over.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: China quake turns remote town into tomb

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