Zhouqu, China (AFP) Aug 9, 2010
Jin Xuecai stared in silent shock and disbelief as the remains of his three-year-old daughter -- one of the victims of the devastating weekend mudslides in northwestern China -- were cremated.
Jin, 26, is one of many Tibetans who live in remote Zhouqu county in Gansu province, which was struck with an avalanche of mud and debris triggered by torrential rains late Saturday -- as many people were sleeping.
He came to the county seat on Monday with his neighbour, a woman who gave only her surname Zhao, to look for his relatives. His wife, mother and two-year-old son are still unaccounted for.
"Eighteen people from our village have gone missing in the landslide," Zhao said, relating Jin's story, as his distress prevented him from speaking. Only one of the missing villagers had been found so far -- Jin's daughter.
"We're Tibetans so we burn the dead. Normally we would have done a proper burial, but because it's so warm and there are many bodies, we burned her straight away," Zhao said, as flames leapt in the air.
Jin and Zhao were among a group of villagers searching through unclaimed corpses lined up in a car park not far from the centre of town.
Every few minutes, a group of six to eight rescuers arrived to add another victim to the line-up. About a dozen bodies were awaiting identification.
Some were half-covered in blankets, others directly exposed to the warm air. Heads and arms were twisted at odd angles, presumably from the force of the torrent of water, mud and debris that struck the victims without warning.
The stench of decaying human flesh was overwhelming. One man looking for a loved one vomited at the sight. Another man said he was looking for his wife and sister, but had been unsuccessful.
According to Zhao, Jin was working on his family's new home in a village above the point when the mudslide began, so he escaped unscathed. His relatives were in Zhuxi village, in the direct path of the destructive sludge.
"This disaster could be worse than Yushu," Zhao said, referring to a 6.9-magnitude earthquake that killed nearly 2,700 people in a remote corner of the Tibetan plateau in neighbouring Qinghai province in April.
So far, 337 people have been confirmed dead in the mudslides and another 1,148 are missing, the state Xinhua news agency said Monday.
In the centre of town, the pungent odour of corpses permeated the air. Zhouqu's main road was covered in knee-deep soft mud. Bodies were scattered to the sides.
Along the river, where homes once stood, nothing but mounds of earth and debris remained. Belongings of the victims -- televisions, clothes -- littered the area. Five diggers were being used to clear some of the rubble.
Han Dengke, 38, had tears in her eyes as she searched for her brother and nephew.
"They can't find them at the moment," she said, adding that rescuers had told her there was hope of finding survivors in the first 72 hours after the disaster -- until late Tuesday.
earlier related report
At least three villages were flattened by an avalanche of mud and rocks triggered by heavy rains in a remote area of Gansu province late Saturday, killing at least 127 people.
China is battling the worst flooding it has seen in a decade, with more than 2,100 people dead or missing nationwide before the Gansu disaster.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who arrived in the devastated area Sunday, urged thousands of rescue workers at the scene to hasten efforts to find survivors and provide relief to 45,000 people who have been evacuated.
"For those buried under the debris, now it's the most crucial time to save their lives," Wen was quoted by state Xinhua news agency as saying Sunday, adding that efforts would continue as long as hopes of survival existed.
Early Monday, 34 hours after the landslides, those hopes were boosted when rescuers saved a 74-year-old woman in hardest-hit Zhouqu county, where streets were covered in mud two metres (yards) thick in some places.
The woman, whose name was not immediately known, was in stable condition and able to speak, but was weak from hunger and thirst, Xinhua said, citing a rescue headquarters spokesman.
The landslides swept mud, houses, cars and other debris into a river running through Zhouqu, blocking the waterway and triggering flooding in the area, surrounded by mountains on both sides, the government said.
The mudslides levelled an area five kilometres (three miles) long and 500 metres wide, Xinhua said, with floodwaters up to three storeys high submerging half the county.
"That night, I went to the door to check what had happened after I heard a strong wind and unusual rumbling," He Xinchao, a 44-year-old man who was rescued with his three-year-old son on Sunday, told China Daily.
"As soon as I opened the door, mud squeezed in," said He, who clung to a pole overnight to survive. "For the entire night, water and mud kept rising, covering my chest and edging up to my neck."
Nine members of He's family were still missing, he said.
Authorities have sent more than 4,500 soldiers, police, firefighters and medics to help in search and rescue efforts.
"We have heard signs of life, cellphones ringing and faint cries for help," Xu Jiaming, who was commanding a group of 500 soldiers, told Xinhua.
Soldiers and rescuers have been forced to use shovels and even their bare hands to clear the mud, as no heavy equipment was in place in the area, and would have been useless anyway, given the thickness of the sludge.
Some people awaited rescue on their rooftops. Others walked through the streets carrying their dead loved ones on wooden boards, covered in bed sheets, China Daily reported.
"That used to be my home," said 36-year-old Zhao Xinquan, whose two-storey house was destroyed, with five people inside.
"I hope I can at least find their bodies, so that they can rest in peace," he told Xinhua, wiping away tears.
Cars and homes were buried in the debris. Roads and bridges were destroyed, and many residents were without power, drinking water or phone lines Monday.
A total of 1,294 people were missing as of late Sunday, the Gansu civil affairs department said.
Nearly 90 people have been injured, Xinhua said. Thirty of them are in critical condition in hospital. Psychologists have been sent to help survivors cope with trauma.
Torrential downpours had stopped, reports said, but more rain is forecast for the coming days.
Troops used explosives on Monday to blast away the mud and debris blocking the Bailong River to prevent further flooding, Xinhua said.
Authorities have sent electricity generators, tents, instant noodles and bottled water to the region, about one third of whose residents are ethnic Tibetans.
The devastated region was also among the worst hit by an earthquake in neighbouring Sichuan province in 2008.
So far this year, more than 12 million people had been evacuated from their homes due to flooding across large swathes of China, and 1.4 million homes have been destroyed, the civil affairs ministry said Friday.
In China's northeast, entire towns have been flooded and rivers bordering North Korea swollen to critical levels. State media in that country have reported widespread flooding, without giving any casualty figures.
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Death toll in China mudslides jumps to 337
Zhouqu, China (AFP) Aug 10, 2010
The death toll from mudslides in northwest China surged to 337 on Monday, as rescuers used diggers and their bare hands in a desperate search for more than 1,000 others still missing. At least three villages were flattened by an avalanche of mud and rocks triggered by heavy rains in a remote area of Gansu province late Saturday - the latest deadly disaster as China battles its worst floodin ... read more
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