ZHOUQU, Gansu - The stench of death hung over the northwest China county of Zhouqu Wednesday, three days after the deadliest mudslide in decades buried almost 2,000 people in their homes.
Heavy machines drove into the devastated county seat Wednesday for a massive clean-up of sludge and debris in order to clear the way for potential floods as the weather bureau has warned of heavy rain and more possible geological disasters from Thursday.
The rescuers, mostly troops of the People's Liberation Army and the armed police, are facing the dilemma of whether to speed up the clean-up and avoid further devastation, or to keep searching -- a job they have been doing around the clock to for three days -- though they are more prepared to find bodies than survivors.
As the excavators drove over the debris of toppled homes, anguished residents wailed and watched, still hoping their loved ones would resurface.
"I know there's no chance for my mother -- our house has disappeared altogether," said Yang Yuzhong, 33. "But I need to find her and give her a decent burial."
Yang had made a stretcher out of a board and tree trunk, which, covered with a sheet and quilt, would also serve as his mother's coffin.
On Monday, rescuers retrieved the body of Yang's wife. "I escaped with my son in my arms, but my wife and mother were not fast enough."
"It's hard to stop searching and let them down," said Ren Tianwen, commander of a 700-strong armed police team. "So the clean-up is going on very slowly. We stop every time there's a chance of finding a body."
Ren's troops have found more than 100 bodies, all within a kilometer of each other, in the county seat over the past 70 hours.
Before the roads were repaired and reopened on Tuesday, they could only dig with hoes and shovels and lever up mammoth rocks with ropes.
With heavy machinery, they are expected to accelerate the clean-up.
When rain battered the devastated areas again on Thursday, the flood waters could wash the debris and bodies down the Bailong River and cause more public health problems, said Ren.
Immediate cremation of the recovered bodies would be best for epidemic prevention, but in Zhouqu County, where at least a third of the residents are Tibetans, traditional burial is still one of the most prevalent funeral customs.
"We encourage people to cremate the bodies of their deceased family members as soon as possible, but many people want to keep the old custom of burial," said Yang Yuqiong, a doctor at a local clinic.
Yang and her colleagues are extremely worried about disease in the area, which is hit alternately by blazing heat and rain.
The weather bureau warned Wednesday of heavy rains and more potential geological disasters in the next five days on the upper reaches of the Bailong River, above Zhouqu County.
Rescuers have also stepped up their fight to drain a dangerous debris-formed lake on the Bailong River, which could burst and flood the already-devastated areas amid torrential rains.
The provincial government has ordered a mass evacuation of residents in areas prone to flooding and geological disasters.