China earthquake: Small miracles recovered from China quake debris

ONE by one, shocked eyes white against bloodied skin, they were eased gasping from the rubble. Those who had clung to survival long enough to be reached by rescuers grasped arms that dragged them, almost tenderly, from the rain-lashed dust of collapsed cities.

While the death toll from the Chinese earthquake continues to rise, and about 26,000 remain trapped in the rubble, individual instances of incredible survival have shone a glimmer of hope on a devastated region.

On Tuesday morning, rescuers discovered three-year-old Song Xinyi, all but her head and shoulders buried under the dead bodies of her parents, in the ruins of her home. It took more than 40 hours for them to reach her, but yesterday she emerged from her unimaginable hell. Still able to talk, she explained the three Chinese characters that made up her name to the crowd who had gathered to help her and told them she loved painting and watching television.

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Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, consoled her and checked her wounds before she was carried on to an ambulance and sent to hospital in Beichuan. Doctors said an immediate operation would be needed to save her legs – and it may not be successful.

The only way to save teenager Yang Liu, who was trapped in the ruins of her school in Mianzhu city, was to amputate her legs. She had lain alive with that terrible knowledge as workers removed bricks from around her and a crane pulled away slabs of concrete.

While parents clustered at the school gates in the desperate hope that their child, too, would be alive – she was given food, water and a helmet. As she lay there, rescuers pulled out the body of a boy, his hand still gripping a pen.

Nearby, the leader of a rescue crew preparing to dig into yet another ruined building gave his team a pep talk. "In my whole life, I've never done anything like this, I've never seen anything like this, but we must be soldiers now," Yang Xin said.

"We must fully do our duties. You are my flesh and blood, and the people buried in here are our flesh and blood."

In Dujiangyan, about 60 miles from the quake's epicentre in Wenchuan county, an eight-months pregnant woman was rescued after 50 hours beneath the debris of her home.

Zhang Xiaoyan and her mother had been trapped in a pile of concrete slabs and other debris after their building collapsed. Both looked shaken but were not seriously injured when they were pulled out. They had been given water throughout their ordeal and rescue workers were able to talk to them.

"It's a miracle brought about by us all working together," said Sun Guoli, the fire chief of the provincial capital, Chengdu, who supervised the rescue.

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But behind these individual "miracles" stretched a nightmare backdrop of deaths – which the authorities admitted could eventually exceed 50,000.

Li Chengyun, the vice-governor of Sichuan province, said incomplete figures suggested 14,463 people were dead, 14,051 missing, 25,788 buried in the debris and 64,746 injured.

For the first time yesterday, aid reached the epicentre of the 7.9-magnitude quake, the worst to hit China in 32 years, and the first batch of 47 survivors were evacuated by helicopter from Wenchuan county to Huaxi Hospital, the largest in Chengdu.

Rescuers scoured flattened mountain villages for the missing and buried victims, with sporadic success.

But the enormous scale of the devastation meant resources were stretched thin. Makeshift aid stations and refugee centres were springing up all over the disaster area. Hospitals had been levelled, forcing doctors and nurses to treat survivors in the street.

Helicopters buzzed overhead, dropping food and medicine to isolated towns – part of the mobilisation of 100,000 troops and police for the relief effort.

On the ground, mourners burned money before rows of bodies, believing their lost relatives could use it in the afterlife.

The third day of the relief effort was aided by the clearing of storms that had prevented flights over some of the worst-hit towns.

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In Hanwang, east of the epicentre, the smell of incense hung over a crowd of sobbing relatives who walked among some 60 bodies wrapped in plastic, some of them covered with tributes of branches or flowers.

Nearby, rescuers carried more bodies out of a makeshift morgue that been set up at the Dongqi sports arena.

Survivors from the town and surrounding areas packed into blue tents provided by relief officials. A western-style clock tower in the town centre had stopped at 2:27pm – the time the quake had hit.

The scenes of devastation and tales of survival have been played out across China's official media, with state TV cancelling its regular programming to run 24-hour coverage. Yesterday, they continued their prominent focus on Premier Wen, who has been on the ground overseeing the rescue work since Monday.

His arms wrapped around two little girls and a sombre-faced woman, he told survivors in Red Cross tents: "The party and the government are concerned about you. Your pain is our pain."

Meanwhile, Hu Jintao, the president, presided over an emergency meeting of the Communist Party's highest body, the second such meeting since the quake happened, and urged the military, police and others to rush to the disaster area to help the relief effort.

Relatives' concern for missing Britons

RELATIVES of UK nationals missing in the aftermath of the earthquake told yesterday of their agonising wait for news.

Among those unaccounted for are 19 British holidaymakers who were on a visit to the Wolong panda reserve, in Wenchuan county, when the 7.9-magnitude quake struck on Monday.

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The group included retired couple David and Diane Atkins, of Hampshire, whose daughter, Lisa Staples, from Portsmouth, said she feared for their lives, as her father took tablets for his blood pressure.

"I am trying really hard to keep busy and not panic," she said. "But time is running out for my dad. They are over 60 and both need facilities."

Sir William Ehrman, the British ambassador to China, flew into the provincial capital, Chengdu, last night to help co-ordinate the search for the missing British nationals.

A five-member rapid response team and consular officials are already in Chengdu, and the Foreign Office said it was working round the clock to track down "a number" of British citizens who remain out of contact.

Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, has announced up to 1 million of government funding for the aid effort. He said the Prime Minister had written to Wen Jiaboa, the Chinese premier, offering his support and condolences.

He went on: "We are concerned for the UK nationals as yet unaccounted for and grateful to the Chinese authorities for their assistance."

It is not known how many independent travellers were in the region when the quake struck. Concerned friends and relatives have been telephoning the Foreign Office, but there have been no reports of British casualties.