Churning waters poured through a man-made sluice to engulf low-lying, empty towns devastated by last month's massive earthquake as China declared victory Tuesday in its fight to drain a quake-formed lake that threatened more than a million people living downstream.
Sichuan province's top leader, local Communist Party chief Liu Qibao, called it a "decisive victory" after waters gushed from the lake, the largest of 30 created by the quake that killed nearly 70,000 people, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Xinhua said more than half of the 8.8 billion cubic feet of water in the Tangjiashan lake had been drained off by early evening, easing pressure on the natural dam formed when the May 12 quake triggered a landslide of mud, rocks and debris.
More than 250,000 people living downstream had already moved to high ground due to concerns that the barrier holding back the lake could break. A total of about 1.3 million people live in the downstream area.
Fearful that the possible deluge would endanger refugees and residents, China ordered soldiers and police to work nonstop for four days to dig a diversion channel and blast away boulders and large debris with dynamite, bazookas and recoilless guns to speed up the drainage.
State broadcaster CCTV showed water flowing quickly out of the lake, flooding low-lying areas of the devastated town of Beichuan just below. Residents from the area had been evacuated days earlier.
The swirl of muddy water roaring past towns and villages swept along trees, barrels, television sets, refrigerators "and the occasional dead bodies of quake victims," Xinhua reported.
Tuesday's flooding brought more heartache to people displaced by the earthquake in which nearly 87,000 people either died or are missing. Many said valuables were now lost for good.
"It began flooding early this morning," said shop assistant Zhu Yunhui, 37, who lost loved ones in the quake and said she had kept many tens of thousands of yuan in her home. "Now we can never go back. This is heartbreaking."
Grief, anger and answers
Heartache continued through the region, where parents of children killed in schools have demanded that officials answer for alleged corruption in the buildings' construction. While there have been no reports of major unrest, refugees have rioted on at least one occasion over misused aid.
At least 15 Sichuan officials have also been removed from their posts for mishandling relief work. Another 13 have been given other forms of administrative punishment.
The government promised to carry out earthquake-resistance checks of all school buildings nationwide before Sept. 1, the beginning of the new school semester, Xinhua said.
Brick school buildings built before 2001 would get extra attention in the exam, according to the notice by the ministries of education and housing. Every dormitory, cafeteria and public bathroom, from the kindergarten level through university-level, would also be checked, it said. Any building found to be potentially dangerous would be banned.
Officials and people found to be accountable for quality accidents regarding school facilities will be dealt with harshly according to law, the notice said.
Also Tuesday, staff at the world's most famous panda reserve buried one of the animals that was killed in a landslide triggered by the quake.
Nine-year-old female Mao Mao was the only panda at the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve confirmed to have died in the quake, said Zhang Hemin, who heads the reserve. The panda's body was found Monday.
Staff placed Mao Mao in a crate, then buried it and placed a large stone on top.
Mao Mao's keeper, He Changgui, sobbed softly as he placed apples and a slice of bread on the stone as a funeral offering.
"I will go back to see her every day," He said.
One other panda, Xiao Xiao, has also been missing since the quake. Forty-seven others still live at Wolong.
The panda is revered in China and serves as an unofficial mascot. About 1,590 pandas live in the wild, mostly in Sichuan and the western province of Shaanxi. An additional 180 have been bred in captivity in hopes of increasing the species' chances of survival.
The death toll from the devastating May 12 quake climbed Monday to 69,142, with 17,551 people still missing and about 5 million people left homeless.