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EARTHQUAKE IN CHINA: OVERWHELMED HOSPITAL

Strong aftershock complicates relief effort

Rescuers race against time to reach remote mountain villages. The injured and the homeless fill hospitals.

May 17, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

DEYANG, CHINA — A strong aftershock hit China's battered Sichuan province Friday, causing landslides, knocking out telephone lines and burying vehicles, according to state media. There were no immediate reports of deaths.

The magnitude 5.5 temblor struck at 1:25 p.m. and had its epicenter in Lixian County, further complicating the job of getting aid into nearby Wenchuan County, the epicenter of Monday's massive quake.

The aftershock, the latest in a series this week, could be felt in Chengdu, a major city 75 miles to the southeast.

"I was using the computer on the second floor when it hit, and jumped up and ran," said Yu Ping, 21, a hotel worker in Chengdu, the provincial capital. "I was so scared, I can still feel it."

Throughout the quake zone, rescue teams rushed to isolated mountain villages and previously inaccessible communities, hoping to save those still trapped under the rubble. Several people reportedly were pulled out alive, but after four days most of those recovered were dead.

Provincial officials put the latest death toll at 22,069, nearly 3,000 higher than the day before; the national government has said it expects the figure to reach 50,000. The officials also said there were 14,000 people still buried, 159,000 injured and 4.8 million homeless.

But statistics went only so far in portraying the effect of the earthquake. Hospitals were a study in the misery of people injured and homeless.

"I dragged my daughter-in-law outside our house; otherwise, she would be dead," said Cui Xiangyu, a 63-year-old farmer, pointing to the woman, whose fingers were smashed and chest badly bruised. Cui, her own leg smashed, was sharing a three-bed room in Deyang People's Hospital No. 2 with her daughter-in-law and three other patients.

"Our house is completely destroyed and many in our neighborhood in Xintian died," Cui said. "We even lost our pigs, which were worth $120."

President Hu Jintao flew in Friday for a firsthand look, visiting Mianyang, about 60 miles from the epicenter of Monday's magnitude 7.9 quake. A sports stadium in the town had become a massive collection point for quake victims from around the region.

"The challenge is still daunting, the task is still arduous, and the time pressing," Hu said, according to the New China News Agency.

Beijing has allocated $772 million for quake relief, according to the central bank's website, nearly five times the amount as of two days earlier.

After initially declining to accept experts from abroad, China has welcomed them. Several teams from Russia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore are expected in the next few days, the Foreign Ministry said, and a team of about 60 Japanese rescue workers arrived in Sichuan early Friday.

At China's request, the U.N. World Food Program said, it was sending enough ready-to-eat meals for nearly 120,000 people.

A stream of army trucks, heavy equipment and private aid headed out of Chengdu on Friday for badly hit Beichuan County, about 80 miles north. "Rice dishes from the National Tax Bureau," read the handwritten sign on one white truck.

Moving back to Chengdu as night fell were convoys of ambulances, their blue lights flashing in concert, ferrying the injured to bigger hospitals in the provincial capital.

Among the items in demand, according to local media, were first-aid kits, ready-to-eat meals, tarpaulins, blankets, clothing, flashlights and emergency lanterns.

Aid started to trickle in Friday to the epicenter of the huge quake after the opening of a few roads the day before allowed military trucks to haul in food and rescue equipment.

Housing Minister Jiang Weixin said the water supply situation was "extremely serious" in Sichuan, with 20 cities and counties not receiving water at all.

AIR Worldwide Corp., a catastrophe risk modeling firm, said losses to insured and uninsured property would probably exceed $20 billion.

Also Friday, a rescue team found a survivor and $140,000 in cash in the debris of a collapsed Bank of China branch office in Mianzhu, according to the New China Agency.

And in a harrowing story from Beichuan reported in the state media, Gong Tianxiu was discovered alive Thursday in the rubble of another bank after being buried 73 hours with her right leg under a boulder.

With no large equipment available, rescue workers, to save her life, passed the 40-year-old Gong a saw, which she used to cut off her leg, allowing her to be rushed by ambulance to a hospital, according to the People's Daily website.

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Gao Wenhuan of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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