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Quake's hard-hit town empties, clean-up begins

Image:  ruins of collapsed buildings
The ruins of collapsed buildings lay among those still standing in Beichuan. On Thursday, workers in white protective suits and black rubber boots sprayed disinfectant on buildings, trees, car wheels and the soles of shoes of people leaving the town, where thousands are still likely buried.Vincent Yu / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wrecking machines on Thursday started toppling the few buildings left standing in this quake-struck town that was once home to 30,000, and the search for survivors is over.

The government announced a sharp increase in the number of confirmed deaths above its projected total of 50,000, and said tents were needed the most. Some 30,000 people were still unaccounted for, amid a seething mass of newly homeless numbering 5 million.

Ten days after China's worst disaster in a generation, it appears the search for survivors — and even the dead — was giving way to the first steps toward reconstruction.

"There are no more signs of life," said 24-year-old soldier Li Zichuan, as he watched excavators demolishing what was left of the Beichuan Middle School, where residents say hundreds of students and teachers were killed. "During the recovery operation we dug many bodies up here, so now all that is left is to disinfect the place and then demolish it."

The bottom two floors of the five story school collapsed in the quake, leaving a squat, leaning wreck.

Rescue work at a standstill
Rescuing trapped survivors was the first priority of the massive military-led response to the May 12 disaster, and teams have pulled 33,434 people from the rubble, officials say.

Now, those efforts have come to a virtual standstill. No rescues of buried survivors have been reported since Wednesday.

State television has sharply reduced live coverage from the shattered zone in Sichuan province. The clip of Premier Wen Jiabao declaring that the search for survivors would continue "as long as there's a glimmer of hope" — played endlessly in the first week — has also been dropped from broadcasts.

Instead, on Thursday, Wen was shown delivering a different message on a brief visit to Beichuan. "We have not forgotten them," Wen said of the dead, and he urged resident to focus on building a new hometown as an act of consolation.

In one quake-hit area, work had already turned to reconstruction. Rescue teams departed Dujiangyan, where workers were burying bodies and clearing rubble from collapsed buildings, said The Beijing Times, a state-run newspaper.

The confirmed death toll rose Thursday to 51,151, up almost 10,000 from the day before, said Cabinet spokesman Guo Weimin. Another 29,328 people remained missing and nearly 300,000 were injured in the quake in Sichuan province.

Smell of bleach pervasive
In Beichuan town, one of the hardest-hit, streets once crawling with military convoys, emergency workers, fleeing villagers and volunteers were nearly deserted Thursday. Dogs and chickens roamed the area, which was silent except for the occasional distant roar of a car engine.

The smell of bleach was overpowering as workers in white protective suits and black rubber boots sprayed disinfectant on buildings, trees, car wheels and the soles of shoes of people leaving the town, where thousands are still likely buried. A layer of lime — believed to be a disinfectant when sprinkled on bodies — covered roads and any surface where corpses were probably yet to be recovered.

"The bodies of dead victims will decompose and there could be an epidemic outbreak, so our job right now is to prevent that," said Ma Changjia, a volunteer from the southern city of Shenzhen who had come to help with the clean up.

As the afternoon sun grew stronger, exhausted workers sat under trees, some with their heads slumped between their knees. Plastic canisters and basins of disinfectant lined the sidewalk.

Health experts say corpses pose little direct threat of communicable diseases or contamination, but that it is a widespread misconception.

"People are quite traumatized after an event like this and they know that there are bodies underneath the rubble," said Paul Garwood, spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva. "So the disinfection measures provide reassurance and support."

Tents delivered to victims
Some 400,000 tents have been delivered to quake victims, and thousands of prefabricated huts have been erected. Still, the need for more was urgent.

"We need more than 3.3 million tents," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters on Thursday, renewing an international appeal.

To reinforce the point, President Hu Jintao visited two tent manufacturing companies, where he was shown on state television urging workers to boost production to help their countrymen.

Also Thursday, the government warned of the risk of secondary disasters from blocked streams, earthquake-loosened soil, mudslides and the upcoming rainy season.

Debris from the earthquake had created blocked rivers and streams, creating 34 "barrier lakes" that could become unstable.

"The water level in some lakes is high and rising," he said. "If there's a break, it will cause severe damage," Yun Xiaosu, vice minister of land and resources, told reporters in Beijing. Yun said that people at risk had been evacuated.

The Olympic torch resumed its relay through China following a three-day national mourning period for quake victims.

Hu chaired a meeting on the quake Thursday by China's highest governing body, where leaders vowed to continue the rescue effort "to the last village," according to a statement.

But in Beichuan, gone is the constant whine of sirens, the legion of shovel-toting soldiers and orange-suited rescue workers who rushed from one mountain of debris to the next looking for survivors in the days immediately after the tremor.

Demolition begins
The town now sits abandoned. Excavators and cranes have started to raze buildings. Aside from the workers tasked with disinfecting the ruins, a handful of displaced residents were allowed in to scrounge through rubble for their belongings. They left struggling with suitcases and bags filled with clothes and other personal items dug out from what used to be their homes.

Officials say they plan to rebuild Beichuan's county seat in a new area. Provincial official Hou Xiongfei said Thursday no decision would be made on a new location immediately.

Many, returning for the first time from other provinces since the quake, stood in awe at the destruction.

"Look at that, just look at that," one man said to friend as they surveyed the surreal skyline of crooked buildings and wiped out roads.