China: Quake death toll could reach 50,000

Friday, May 16, 2008

LUOSHUI TOWN, China -- Troops dug burial pits in this quake-shattered town and black smoke poured from crematorium chimneys elsewhere in central China as priorities began shifting Thursday from the hunt for survivors to dealing with the dead. Officials said the final toll could more than double to 50,000.

As the massive military-led recovery operation inched farther into regions cut off by Monday's quake, the government sought to enlist the public's help with an appeal for everything from hammers to cranes and, in a turnabout, began accepting foreign aid missions, the first from regional rival Japan.

Millions of survivors left homeless or too terrified to go indoors faced their fourth night under tarpaulins, tents or nothing at all as workers patched roads and cleared debris to reach more outlying towns in the disaster zone.

Health officials said there have been no outbreaks of disease so far, with workers rushing to inoculate survivors against disease, supply them with drinking water and find ways to dispose of an overwhelming number of corpses.

"There are still bodies in the hills, and pits are being dug to bury them," said Zhao Xiaoli, a nurse in the ruined town of Hanwang. "There's no way to bring them down. It's too dangerous."

Troops in the town of Luoshui in a quake-ravaged area used a mechanical shovel to dig a pit on a hilltop. Two bodies wrapped in white sheets lay beside it. Down the hill sat four mounds of lime.

Across the quake zone in Dujiangyan, troops in face masks collected corpses and loaded them onto a flatbed truck. Thick black smoke streamed from the twin chimneys of the town's crematorium.

The emergency headquarters of the State Council, China's Cabinet, said the confirmed death toll had reached 19,509 -- up more than 4,500 from the day before. The council said deaths could rise to 50,000, state media reported.

The provincial government said more than 12,300 remained buried and another 102,100 were injured in Sichuan, where the quake was centered.

Experts said hope was quickly fading for anyone still caught in the wreckage of homes, schools, offices and factories that collapsed in the magnitude-7.9 quake, the most powerful in three decades in quake-prone China.

"Generally speaking, anyone buried in an earthquake can survive without water and food for three days," said Gu Linsheng, a researcher with Tsinghua University's Emergency Management Research Center. "After that, it's usually a miracle for anyone to survive."

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