China earthquake: 60,000 still missing
By Richard Spencer in Dujiangyan
Last Updated: 6:58AM BST 14/05/2008
Around 60,000 people are missing near the epicentre of the Chinese earthquake, prompting fears that the death toll could rise dramatically.
The official number of dead is currently put at around 13,000 but the state news agency reported that several times that figure are unaccounted for across Wenchuan, northwest of the Sichuan provincial capital, Chengdu.
It comes as China poured 50,000 troops into Sichuan in an attempt to find any remaining survivors of Monday’s 7.9 magnitude earthquake among the mud, rubble and tangled buildings.
But they had to battle to get through landslides which had cut off Wenchuan.
Just under 19,000 people are believed to have been buried under debris in Mianyang – one of the cities worst affected.
One steam turbine factory just outside was almost wiped out by the quake, and 500 workers and their family members were missing, local media reported.
Amid the grief, there were also moments of relief when survivors were found. In Mianzhu, where rescuers said the death toll had risen to 3,000, about 500 people were pulled out alive from crushed buildings.
A team of 1,300 soldiers and medical staff arrived on foot in Wenchuan, the county where the earthquake struck just before 2.30pm on Monday.
In Yingxiu, a town of 12,000 people, only 2,300 had been found alive, He Biao, the director of the prefecture’s emergency office, told state television.
In another south-western town, 80 per cent of homes had collapsed, along with roads and bridges, and altogether in the county 60,000 people were unaccounted for, he said.
“They could hear people under the debris calling for help, but no one could, because there were no professional rescue teams,” he said.
Among the missing are a coach party of 19 Britons in Wenchuan. The county contains the Wolong Nature Reserve, home to the world’s largest collection of captive giant pandas.
The Britons were travelling from Chengdu to Wolong, according to Kuoni, their tour operator, which was trying to contact them last night. The Foreign Office was said to be preparing to send in a rapid response team to look for them.
David and Diane Atkins, from Porchester, Hampshire, were part of the panda-watching tour and have not been heard from since the earthquake struck.
Their daughter, Lisa Staples, posted a note calling for information about her parents on a news website.
“We are worried sick. We want to know if they are well, but have heard nothing so far,” Mrs Staples told The Times. “The tour operator has not been able to help and we are now waiting for the Foreign Office to tell us what is going on. I cannot sleep, and just want to know that they are okay.”
Another 100 British tourists in the region were reported to be safe, while the Chinese authorities said they had no reports of foreign casualties.
No major teams with equipment have been able to reach Wenchuan, as roads through the mountainous passes are broken and blocked by landslides. While rescuers struggled to help those trapped in the mountains, in the plains to the south efforts were under way to pull any survivors from the rubble of collapsed buildings.
The People’s Liberation Army said 20,000 troops were working in the affected region and 30,000 more were on their way. But, though paratroops have been ordered to drop into Wenchuan, helicopter operations are being hampered by heavy rain and fog across much of the area.
“What we most need is medicine,” Mr He said. “There is no medicine, there are no doctors and after such a long time, no food.”
British agencies including Oxfam and Save the Children are helping with the relief effort, sending expert teams to the region. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, praised China’s “exemplary” response to disaster, in comparison to the “callous” response of the Burmese authorities.
Even if a majority of the missing are found safe and well, the number of deaths is sure to escalate well beyond the 12,000 so far confirmed.
Elsewhere in Sichuan, more than 18,000 people are missing in Mianyang city, while hundreds lie buried under rubble across the region and hundreds were said to be dead in the neighbouring provinces of Chongqing, Shaanxi and Gansu. Destroyed buildings include schools, hospitals, and a chemical plant. The 86 pandas at Wolong Centre were said to have escaped the earthquake.
The Olympic torch relay will be scaled back to mark the disaster, organisers said.