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Flood fears ease after thousands evacuate

Two residents, one carrying a wedding picture of relatives and and other belongings, leave the disaster area in Beichuan county on Saturday. The man in the wedding image was killed in Monday's earthquake.
Two residents, one carrying a wedding picture of relatives and and other belongings, leave the disaster area in Beichuan county on Saturday. The man in the wedding image was killed in Monday's earthquake. Vincent Yu / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rescue work resumed Sunday in Sichuan province after survivors of a massive earthquake spent a jittery night worried that blocked rivers would flood their already devastated towns.

Two rivers backed up by landslides had threatened to flood the towns, sending thousands of people fleeing in a region still staggering from the country's worst disaster in 30 years.

The official Xinhua News Agency said a man was found alive after being trapped for 139 hours in a collapsed hospital in Beichuan. Xinhua said Sunday that the man, Tang Xiong, "was only slightly bruised" when he was pulled to safety.

But the government fears the death toll from last Monday's magnitude 7.9 quake will surpass 50,000.

A mountain sheared off by the quake blocked the Qingzhu river and swallowed the village of Donghekou whole, entombing an unknown number of people inside a huge mound of earth.

An official said Sunday the flooding danger had eased.

"The river levels have dropped," said a government official at the disaster command post in nearby Qingchuan, in the northern part of Sichuan province. He refused to give his name.

Frightened residents had streamed out of the entire county on the northern edge of the quake zone, spurred by mobile phone text messages sent en masse by local government officials warning that the water level was rising and people downstream were being evacuated.

In the town of Beichuan, 60 miles to the south, thousands fled as the reports circulated.

The swift exodus underscored the jitters that persist. A strong aftershock — the second in two days and measured by the U.S. Geological Survey at magnitude 5.7 — shook the area early Sunday for 45 seconds, causing people to run into the streets.

A village disappears
In all the devastation wrought by the quake, little looks as bleak as Donghekou.

The road to the village ends in a tangled twist of metal and tar. In the small valley below, the village itself has disappeared when the mountain collapsed. Locals said two other villages further upstream, Ciban and Kangle, had suffered the same fate. The three villages were home to about 300 families, locals said.

Eerie and still, the remaining landscape has few signs of human life — a soiled green floral scarf, a rubber pipe, a log.

"Oh God! I have lost everything," said Wen Xiaoying, 32, whose voice shook as she surveyed the valley below for the first time since returning from far-off Guangdong province where she worked.

She held up one hand as she ticked off the family members that died -- her father, her mother, her sister and her brother-in-law — all of them buried somewhere in the muck before her.

"When I saw them the last time, we celebrated together," said Wen, a glimmer of a smile showing through as she remembered happier days. "I didn't expect it would be the last time I saw them."

Who's left? 'Only me'
Su Ciyao trudged over the bend in plastic slippers, carrying a plastic rice bag stuffed with salvaged clothes.

"My village is over there," the 44-year-old said, gesturing to the swollen earth behind him. Asked where his family was, he could only shake his head.

"Only me," he said, and then set off without a backward glance.

Drizzling rain in the valley added to the gloom, and to the fear of carloads of people who clogged the twisting mountain roads as they streamed out of the region.

Cabinet spokesman Guo Weimin said 28,881 deaths have been confirmed so far as the death toll continued climbing toward an expected final tally of at least 50,000.

The official Xinhua News Agency, citing regional officials, said more than 10,600 people were known to be still buried nearly a week after quake shattered tens of thousands of buildings in dozens of towns and cities in Sichuan.

Chinese President Hu Jintao has urged rescue teams to reach remote villages battered by the earthquake, according to Xinhua. He said the situation in many of them remained unclear.

That was reinforced by a group of about 15 people who surrounded an Associated Press reporter at a gasoline station in Miangyang city Sunday, appealing for help for their village, Xiushui.

"The government is doing nothing to help us," said one man who identified himself only by his surname, Chen. "If I gave you my complete name the government would track me down."

He said Xiushui was about 12 miles from Mianyang, which is north of Chengdu. Chen did not say how many people lived there, handing over a note which said it had been signed "by the people of Xiushui."

"Please go to our village of Xiushui to cover the situation. The government is doing nothing to help us get water or housing," the note said.

Foreign rescuers join effort
More than 200 rescuers from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Singapore have been searching alongside Chinese soldiers.

Xinhua said Russian rescuers found a 61-year-old woman alive late Saturday after she was buried for 127 hours — the first survivor discovered by foreign rescuers.

"I express heartfelt thanks to the foreign governments and international friends that have contributed to our quake relief work," Chinese President Hu Jintao was quoted as saying by Xinhua Sunday.

More international aid was arriving, with a U.S. Air Force cargo plane loaded with tents, lanterns and 15,000 meals landing Sunday in the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu.

"We are extending the helping hand of a friend to you in the aftermath of this terrible earthquake," U.S. Gen. Charles Hooper said in Chengdu.

The number of security forces helping victims rose to almost 150,000, and the government added cash payments $715 to each family that lost a member to its response.

More tales of rescue
At least seven other survivors were pulled from collapsed buildings, one of them a man whose legs had to be amputated. Another, 20-year-old highway worker Jiang Yuhang was pulled free shortly after his mother arrived from a neighboring province.

"I was expecting to see my son's body. I never expected to see him alive," his mother, Long Jinyu, said on state television.

Experts say buried earthquake survivors can last a week or more, depending on factors including the temperature and whether they have water to drink, but that the chances of survival diminish rapidly after the first 24 hours.

Nearly a week after the quake, soldiers who first arrived with little but shovels were better supplied. In the town of Longhua, rescuers worked through the day, using saws, drills, torches and hands, to free 31-year-old Bian Gengfeng from the wreckage of a six-story apartment building.

A man rescued from the same site Friday told rescuers that he had been talking with a woman still trapped, setting off Saturday's effort.

"Uncle called me yesterday and said 'mom was alive' and I should come and wait here," said 10-year-old Luo Ting, who watched her mother being rescued.