China quake death toll put at over 40,000

More than 5 million left homeless after magnitude-8 temblor

May 21, 2008|By Ching-Ching Ni | Ching-Ching Ni,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CHENGDU, China - The death toll in China's devastating earthquake topped 40,000 yesterday as the country entered a second day of national mourning and struggled to shelter more than 5 million people left homeless.

As the search-and-rescue effort across the mountainous quake zone reached the ninth day, hope of finding more survivors grew increasingly dim. But small miracles abounded.

State news media reported that a 31-year-old worker had been rescued at a damaged hydroelectric power plant. Ma Yuanjiang survived for 178 hours by drinking his own urine through an empty water bottle and eating four pieces of paper he found in the dark, the report said.

The New China News Agency also reported the rescue of a 60-year-old woman it identified as Wang Liqun, a retiree who had survived on rainwater.

Here in the capital of Sichuan province, the mood yesterday was somber as residents faced the threat of more aftershocks and sought to pay respect to the dead.

The streets were eerily empty as many shops closed in response to a government call to cease all entertaining activities for three days in a gesture of mourning. Authorities also warned that more tremors are expected to hit the region, further hampering rescue efforts and rattling fragile nerves.

After a night of sleeping on the streets and inside cars, residents came to Chengdu's Tianfu Square in the shadow of a giant white statue of Mao Tse-tung to honor the dead. Many wore black. Some dropped off wreaths and fresh flowers piled high under the national flag flying at half-staff.

Mourners arrived throughout the day to stand in silence and read the tiny handwritten messages left with the bouquets or on a long, white banner stretched out on the ground. "Hang in there, Sichuan!" said a message. "Compatriots, take care on your journey to heaven." "Even if you can't see what I wrote, I still want to do it because it's my way of paying tribute," said Xu Zhengyu, 15, after adding his words to the sea of signatures on the banner.

Nearby, an elderly couple stood frozen in front of the mound of wreaths with tears in their eyes.

"It came so suddenly. So many people are gone in an instant, especially the young students," whispered Ho Jinshu, 65, the woman.

Her brother-in-law's family of five was still missing near the epicenter of magnitude-8 tremor that struck May 12, decimating entire communities.

"For the people alive, mourning together offers tremendous emotional support," she said. "It helps us turn pain into strength and to rebuild our homes."

As the focus shifts from search and rescue to caring for the wounded and homeless, the Chinese government faces the monumental task of housing more than 5 million displaced people and more than 240,000 wounded. An estimated 32,000 people were still missing, which could raise the final casualty number.

Authorities have stepped up production for extra tents to improve living conditions, reduce overcrowding and avoid exposure during the coming rainy season. They have also transferred nearly 2,000 patients by trains and planes to facilities away from the epicenter.

Beijing has welcomed international medical workers in the epic humanitarian relief effort, and a team of Russians with a mobile hospital arrived in Chengdu yesterday. Medical workers from Japan, Germany and Italy also were on their way.

President Bush visited the Chinese Embassy in Washington yesterday to offer his condolences and extend the U.S. offer to help the Chinese people.

"We stand with you during this tragic moment as you mourn the loss of so many loved ones and search for those still missing," Bush wrote in a condolence book and then paused for a moment of silence.

In the quake zone, meanwhile, Chinese took a symbolic step toward restoring normality yesterday after the worst natural disaster to strike their nation in three decades: Schools resumed for some young survivors in tents and other temporary shelters. The first lesson for many was how to cope psychologically with the trauma of losing family and friends.

"Physical help is relatively easy to provide; they are now safe here," said Huang Guoping, a psychologist and volunteer at a stadium in Mianyang, where tens of thousands of refugees were sleeping in boxing rings, on running machines and on the floor below posters of bodybuilders. "What we need to do now is to help them heal the pain in their hearts."

Ching-Ching Ni writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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