Flood fear grips quake zone

Thousands race for higher ground after warning

May 18, 2008|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,Los Angeles Times

BEICHUAN, China -- The orange-suited emergency workers had just pulled someone out of the rubble alive yesterday when a chilling cry reverberated around the tilting high-rises, the toppled construction cranes and the market littered with bodies: The valley was about to flood.

In a panic, thousands of soldiers, earthquake survivors and aid workers raced headlong for the hills, some helping babies and old people negotiate a mountain of jagged debris. "Move it!" yelled one commander. "Don't worry about your equipment -- just get to higher ground," barked another.

Authorities issued the warning to evacuate Beichuan, fearing that water from a choked river might overrun this obliterated town near the epicenter of Monday's magnitude 7.9 quake. The official New China News Agency reported that a lake created by earthquake landslides "may burst its banks at any time."

The Beijing government has been playing down the threat of another disaster as it works overtime to reassure the public. But the warning underscored how jittery people's nerves were, given the threat of aftershocks and the risk that flooding in this mountainous area could claim more lives.

The confirmed death toll rose yesterday to 28,881, Cabinet spokesman Guo Weimin said, with 10,600 still buried in Sichuan province. In other developments, two U.S. Air Force cargo planes were expected to arrive in Sichuan today from Hawaii and Alaska loaded with tents, blankets, food and generators.

Hardly a building has been left untouched in Beichuan, in a valley with steep mountains on both sides. All six of the city's deputy mayors are missing or dead; most of its 30,000 residents appear to have been buried or fled.

A team of 15 emergency workers, part of a bigger group that flew in from eastern Jiangxi province, had spent the past two days fanned out on the debris fields looking for survivors. Most carried ropes, shovels and picks, with one member wielding a life-detection device, essentially a 5-foot pole with a cable that was equipped with a microphone and video camera.

Shortly after noon, they lowered the cable into a crevice. Emergency worker Ye Bin, who was on the device when the survivors was found, said he heard a faint voice in response to their calls. For the next 2 1/2 hours, the crew worked by hand to clear the rubble from around the man, eventually freeing him.

The victim, underground for nearly five days, had been on the second floor of a six-story building when the quake struck. He landed face down in an 18-inch space between collapsed floors.

"He came out very strong, immediately asked about his family and had us call their cell phone," said Pan Yonghong, commander of the disaster relief team. "As every day passes, the chances of finding survivors are reduced. But if there's a 1 percent chance, we'll continue to exert 100 percent effort."

The Associated Press carried an Xinhua News Agency report early today that a man was found alive after being trapped for 139 hours in a collapsed hospital in Beichuan. The man, Tang Xiong, "was only slightly bruised" when he was pulled to safety.

About 3 o'clock, the commander got a phone call about the flood warning. The group led by Pan scrambled about 150 feet to the top of the debris, wary of the danger that a large chunk could collapse and bury them.

There was some confusion yesterday over the exact source of the scare amid reports that the earthquake might have weakened dams in the area. But authorities indicated that the problem was a barrier lake, created when an earthquake or avalanche dams a river.

Dai Ping, a Chinese environmental activist, said the government had underplayed the risk of flooding. "A lot of this is top-secret. They don't want to talk about it," Dai said. "

Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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