China earthquake death toll rises as troops reach epicentre

The death toll from China's earthquake rose past 12,000 Tuesday as soldiers hiking on foot reached remote villages near the epicentre in Wenchuan, more than a day after the deadly quake hit.
Local residents walk past destroyed buildings in Mianyang in southwest China's Sichuan province, where a massive earthquake hit Monday, leaving thousands dead and many more homeless. ((Kyodo News/Associated Press))

The death toll from China's earthquake rose past 12,000 Tuesday as soldiers hiking on foot reached remote villages near the epicentre in Wenchuan, more than a day after the deadly quake hit.

Chinese officials announced late Tuesday that 500 Wenchuan residents were confirmed dead and 300 had been rescued, said Xinhua.

Initial reports from soldiers said one nearby town could account for only 2,300 survivors out of 9,000 people, China Central Television said. As many as 60,000 were missing across the county, said the report.

An estimated 18,000 people remain buried under debris in the city of Mianyang in the hard-hit southwestern Sichuan province, the country's official news agency, Xinhua, reported.

A man is trapped in the debris on Tuesday in Beichuan county, about 160 kilometres northeast of the epicentre. ((Jiang Yi/Xinhua/Associated Press))

In the entire swath of central and southern China affected by the quake, only 58 people have so far been rescued from demolished buildings. But the rescue efforts, led by 34,000 Chinese soldiers, will continue for the next week.

"Survivors can hold on for some time. Now it's not time to give up," said Wang Zhenyao, disaster relief division director at the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Rescue efforts are so trying because heavy rain has washed out some roads while debris is cluttering others, Francis Marcus of the International Red Cross told CBC News. He said the Red Cross is trying to deliver blankets and tents to survivors, but the task is not easy.

"The access has been a terrible problem," Marcus said, when reached in Beijing. "Our team has yet to reach the worst-hit disaster areas. It's been extremely tricky."

A Chinese family takes shelter near their damaged house on Tuesday in Mianyang. ((Andy Wong/Associated Press))

As of 7 p.m. local time Tuesday, the disaster relief centre in Sichuan province had reported 12,012 deaths, Xinhua said.

Josh Katz, an American student living and studying in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, said he was about to enter a shopping mall when the quake hit.

"All of a sudden everyone just started streaming out of the mall, thousands of people screaming," he told CBC News. "I basically just joined the crowd and started running away from the building."

An earthquake survivor recovers at a hospital in Chengdu on Tuesday. ((EyePress/Associated Press))

He said some people passed out when they got out of the mall while one person was hit by a car in the chaos. Buildings could be seen all around, shaking and swaying.

Katz said he was terrified, and slept outside Monday night for fear of aftershocks. Many others in the city did the same.

There was a strong aftershock in Chengdu, a city of 11 million, on Tuesday afternoon. Office workers and residents, already shaken by Monday's quake, ran into the streets in panic.

Meanwhile in neighbouring Gansu province, a fire continued to rage 24 hours after a 40-car freight train carrying 13 gasoline tankers derailed in the quake, Xinhua said.

1,900 students feared dead in collapsed schools

Media reports of tragedies kept arriving on Tuesday, including news that 1,000 students and teachers were killed or reported missing at a collapsed high school in the Sichuan county of Beichuan. The school, which was several storeys high and counted 2,000 students, was reduced to a two-metre pile of rubble, Xinhua said.

Beichuan county, a mountainous region of small cities and towns, was considered to be particularly hard hit, with at least 5,000 dead and 80 per cent of buildings reduced to rubble.

Another 900 students are feared dead in a collapsed school in Juyuan, a part of Sichuan's Dujiangyan city, where buildings were knocked down on every block and corpses covered in sheets lay in the streets.

"My wife died in the quake and my house was destroyed," said Zhou Chun, a 70-year-old man who fled the city with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. "I am going to Chengdu, but I don't know where I will live."

Survivors could be seen in the city pulling luggage and clutching bags of food through the rain, as ambulances raced by. In Chengdu, residents were forming long lines at gasoline stations and grocery stores, where supplies were growing scarce.

"There is a large demand for blood in quake-hit areas and we hope the public actively donate," Mao Quan of China's Health Ministry said.

Offers of help have poured in from the U.S., Japan and the European Union, among others. Even Taiwan, considered at odds with China, offered aid.

In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier and Bev Oda, the international co-operation minister, said they are ready with humanitarian assistance when needed.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has been vilified by Chinese authorities who blame him for recent unrest in Tibet, offered prayers for the victims.

Olympic torch relay adopts sombre tone

The Olympic torch relay, which has been taking place in China since April, will be downscaled Wednesday as it moves into Ruijin, a city southeast of Sichuan.

Facing mounting pressure from Chinese-language websites and blogs, Olympic organizers have decided to start Wednesday's event with a moment of silence and have fewer speeches than usual. People along relay routes will be asked for donations to aid earthquake victims.

"We will reduce the scope of the torch relay," organizing committee spokesman Sun Wiede said. "We will simplify the procedures. We will focus on simplicity."

The relay will continue with its sombre tone as it carries on through China, arriving on June 13 in Chongqing before making seven stops in devastated Sichuan beginning on June 15.

The International Olympic Committee said it will donate $1 million US to relief efforts.

Despite the tragedy, Olympic organizers insisted Tuesday that the Games will still be safe for the more than 500,000 foreign visitors expected.

"What I want to say to foreign visitors is that the Olympic Games are safe, Beijing is safe and China is safe," said Zhang Jian, director of the organizing committee's project management office.

The quake shook buildings in Beijing, but the organizing committee says 31 Olympic venues in the city were undamaged. Six other venues outside Beijing were also unscathed.

The torch arrives in Beijing on Aug. 6, two days before the Olympic opening ceremony.

With files from the Associated Press