More than 40,000 people were dead, missing or buried under rubble in China’s southwest, officials said Wednesday, as the full horror of its devastating earthquake began to emerge.
Rescue teams who punched into the quake’s stricken epicentre reported whole towns all but wiped off the map, spurring frantic efforts to bring emergency relief to the survivors.
Planes and helicopters air-dropped supplies, 100 troops parachuted into a county that had been cut off, and rescuers in cities and towns across Sichuan province fought to pull the living and the dead from the debris.
But the overwhelming message that came back from this southwestern province was that only now is a picture slowly beginning to form of the epic scale of Monday’s 7.9-magnitude quake.
State media quoted Sichuan vice governor Li Chengyun saying that based on “incomplete” figures, 14,463 people were confirmed dead in the province as of mid-afternoon Wednesday.
Nearly 26,000 were buried in rubble, he added, while Xinhua corrected its earlier report of more than 14,000 missing to just 1,400-although even that does not take into account new details emerging almost by the hour.
Late Thursday, Xinhua, citing local government, reported that more than 30,000 people were missing or out of reach in the city of Shifang, near the quake’s epicentre, and the death toll there had climbed above 2,500.
Far beyond the numbers is the human tragedy behind China’s worst quake in a generation as rescue teams claw through twisted metal and concrete.
They were looking for people like He Xinghao, 15, whose lifeless body was pulled from the debris of a school close to the epicentre.
Like many other Chinese of his age, strict population policies had made him an only child, and he was showered with affection by his family.
“He was such a good and well-behaved boy. He always did his homework,” said his aunt, Ge Mi, as fresh tears flowed from her reddened eyes.
It was a scene repeated across Sichuan-a province often better known to foreigners for its endangered giant pandas.
The destruction around the epicentre in remote Wenchuan county is massive, with whole mountainsides sheared off, highways ripped apart and building after building levelled.
Cries for help were heard from a flattened school in Yingxiu, where people tried to dig out survivors with their bare hands, state media said.
“The losses have been severe,” Wang Yi, who heads an armed police unit sent into the epicentre zone, was quoted as saying by Sichuan Online news site.
“Some towns basically have no houses left. They have all been razed to the ground.”
At least 7,700 people were feared dead in the town of Yingxiu alone, Xinhua quoted a local official as saying.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said 100,000 military personnel and police had been mobilised in what is an all-out nationwide relief effort. “Time is life,” he urged rescuers.
Aircraft flew dozens of sorties to drop tonnes of food and relief aid into the worst-hit zone, much of it cut off by landslides and road closures.
As well as Yingxiu, CCTV television said air drops were also made in nearby Mianyang, Mianzhu and Pengzhou, while helicopters flew to Wenchuan with food, drinks, tents, communications equipment and other supplies.
On the only paved road in, stunned survivors trekking from Yingxiu-some carrying corpses-passed anxious relatives walking in the opposite direction looking for loved ones.
Amid the fear there were moments of joy, like for Li Xiaoping, who was apart from his wife Tang Zishen when the quake struck.
“Life or death, I’ll never leave her again,” he told AFP.
Many thousands of others are homeless, living and sleeping under makeshift plastic shacks propped up by wood and bamboo. As well as the grief, there was also some frustration at the overwhelmed relief effort.
World powers including the United States, European Union and United Nations have offered money and expertise, and Pope Benedict XVI called for prayers to be said.
However, China rebuffed offers to deploy foreign search and rescue experts, saying conditions were “not yet ripe,” citing damage to transport.
A Japanese foreign ministry official in charge of emergency aid said Tokyo offered rescue teams with sniffer dogs, but China had made no request.
Australian and South Korean expertise was also politely declined, although China did accept one million dollars in aid from Seoul.
Meanwhile, Wednesday’s leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay in the eastern province of Jianxi began with a minute’s silence.