Rescue teams fought gusty winds and altitude sickness Thursday as supplies of food, water and almost everything ran thin after strong earthquakes left more than 600 dead in a mountainous Tibetan area of western China.
Survivors, many of whom spent the night outside in freezing weather, wandered bleeding from their wounds through Jiegu township for a second day, witnesses said. Rescuers, tired from the high winds and thin oxygen, pulled some survivors and many bodies from the pulverized remains of the town flattened by Wednesday morning’s quakes.
“We’ve seen too many bodies and now they’re trying to deal with them. The bodies are piled up like a hill. You can see bodies with broken arms and legs and it breaks your heart,” said Dawa Cairen, a Tibetan who works for the Christian group the Amity Foundation and was helping in rescue efforts. “You can see a lot of blood. It’s flowing like a river.”
Grim pictures emerged from several collapsed schools that were the focus of early rescue efforts. Footage on state television and photos posted online showed bodies laid out near the rubble, and the Xinhua News Agency quoted a local education official as saying 66 children and 10 teachers had died, mostly in three schools.
After spending most of Wednesday opening the nearby airport and clearing roads, relief operations quickened. Nearly 2,000 soldiers, police and firefighters arrived in Yushu county, where Jiegu is located, Xinhua said. Joining them were the China Earthquake Administration’s professional rescue teams, with sniffer dogs, satellite communications equipment, medicines and food.
As more people and supplies poured in by road and air, the influx was producing unintended effects: taxing the normally scarce resources of the remote Yushu, where the altitude averages around 13,000 feet (4,000 meters).
Supplies of food, water, gas and other necessities were running low, said Pierre Deve, a program director at the Yushu-based community development organization Snowland Service Group. Deve said he waited for hours in a line of some 100 cars at the only open gas station. Most shops in Jiegu remained shut, he said, and local Buddhist monasteries handed out some food while some people scavenged food and other belongings from what was left of their houses.
China Central Television said the death toll had risen to 617 by late morning Thursday, with more than 9,000 injured and around 300 still missing. The Ministry of Civil Affairs said about 15,000 houses collapsed and 100,000 people — nearly the entire population of Yushu — needed to be moved to safety.
Dozens of monks were either dead or missing at the Thrangu monastery, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) outside Jiegu, when all but its main hall collapsed, said Danzeng Qiujiang, a senior cleric at the Xiuma monastery far to the north of town.
“Only 7 or 8 of the monks are left alive. All the rest have gone missing. The rescuers either can’t find them or found their bodies. I’m not sure how many deaths have been confirmed yet. But 60 of 70 of them have all gone missing,” the cleric said.
Wednesday morning’s quakes — the worst of which measured magnitude 6.9 by the U.S. Geological Survey and 7.1 by China’s earthquake administration — were the worst to hit the region since the massive Sichuan earthquake two years ago left 90,000 dead or missing.
The destruction of schools was an eerie echo of the Sichuan quake, in which thousands of students died when their poorly built schools collapsed. But unlike in Sichuan — where schools toppled as other buildings stood — everything fell over in Yushu.
Residents in Jiegu described scenes of anguish with the wounded sobbing in pain from lack of medical care. “This feels like a war zone. It’s a complete mess. At night, people were crying and shouting. Women were crying for their families,” said Ren Yu, general manager of Yushu Hotel in Jiegu, who said he felt at least five aftershocks overnight. “Some of the people have broken legs or arms, but all they can get now is an injection. They were crying in pain.”
Ren said hotel staffers returning from assisting in rescue work at night described horrific casualties the quake had caused: “They told me that when some elementary school students were pulled out, their brains had spilled out.”
State media said hundreds had been pulled free alive. CCTV showed rescuers picking through the rubble at night aided by flashlights fixed to their safety helmets. A group of workers found a girl trapped for more than 12 hours under a heap of debris.
“I can’t feel my arm,” said the girl, who was curled up with her back to the workers. The workers talked to her and fed her water as others searched for pieces of wood to prop up the rubble that had entrapped her. As rescuers gingerly pulled her out and carried her to a stretcher, she could be heard saying: “I’m sorry for the trouble. Thank you, I will never forget this.”