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China struggling to shelter quake victims

The known deaths top 40,000. Two more people are rescued, state media report.

May 21, 2008|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

CHENGDU, CHINA — The death toll in China's devastating earthquake topped 40,000 Tuesday as the country entered a third 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 continued for a ninth day, hope of finding more survivors grew increasingly dim. But small miracles abound.

State media reported that a 31-year-old worker had been rescued at a damaged hydroelectric power plant. Ma Yuanjiang said via CCTV that he 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 official 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 was somber as residents faced the threat of more aftershocks and sought to pay respects to the dead.

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

After a night of sleeping on the streets and in cars, residents came to Tianfu Square in the shadow of a giant white statue of Mao Tse-tung to honor the dead. Many wore black. Some piled wreaths and fresh flowers under the national flag flying at half-staff. At dusk they held a second candlelight vigil.

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 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 the magnitude 7.9 temblor 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 injured and homeless, the Chinese government faces the monumental task of housing more than 5 million displaced people and more than 240,000 injured. An estimated 32,000 people were missing, which could raise the fatality number.

Authorities have stepped up production of extra tents to improve living conditions, reduce overcrowding and avoid exposure during the coming rainy season. They also have 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 on Tuesday. Medical workers from Japan, Germany and Italy were on their way.

President Bush visited the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Tuesday to extend his condolences and an 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 before pausing for a moment of silence.

In the quake zone, meanwhile, Chinese took a step toward normality 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 with the trauma of losing family and friends.

"Physical help is relatively easy to provide; they are now safe here," said Huang Guo- ping, a psychologist and volunteer at a stadium in Mianyang, where tens of thousands were sleeping in boxing rings, on treadmills and on the floor, below posters of bodybuilders such as a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. "What we need to do now is to help them heal the pain in their hearts."

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chingching.ni@latimes.com

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