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Anguish and hope as rescue lasts into third day

2010-08-10 17:36

ZHOUQU, Gansu -- Wang Wei missed the call of his life. An unanswered phone call from his home in the early hours of Sunday was probably his wife's last hope of survival.

Wang did not hear the ring, as he was guarding 18 detainees at the detention center in Zhouqu County, northwest China's Gansu Province, that night.

When a massive mudslide swept through the county after midnight and ripped houses from their foundations, the armed police officer forgot about his family until after the detainees were evacuated.

His wife has not been found in the rubble of their home, now covered with a thick layer of mud and sludge.

Despite his grief, Wang joined more than 7,000 troops who are searching for lives in the mudslide-leveled county of Zhouqu.

Armed with simple, primitive tools like shovels, hoes and ropes, they raced against the clock battling through sludge and rubble, spurred by the miraculous survival of a 52-year-old Tibetan man Tuesday morning, 58 hours after the disaster.

The man, by name of Liu Ma Shindan, was rescued at 11:20 a.m. in the ruins of a residential building for telecommunication workers in the county seat.

Liu, whose name is half Tibetan, half Han Chinese like many locals -- as a result of intermarriage between the two ethnic groups -- was saved by rescuers from the neighboring Sichuan Province.

His heart rate and blood pressure were normal and there were no apparent injuries, said Dr. Du Bin from Beijing Union Hospital.

Liu's relatives said he was deaf and mute and were apparently too weak from hunger and thirst to complain of any discomfort.

He received first-aid at the site. A military helicopter was prepared to take him to Lanzhou, the provincial capital, for a thorough exam and treatment Tuesday afternoon.

Over the past 24 hours, rescuers from the Lanzhou Area Command of the People's Liberation Army have helped 14 people out of isolated apartment buildings surrounded by water and mud. Most of them were elderly, children or invalids who were too weak to leave home.

In the meantime, rescuers try to find signs of life in the rubble -- where most of the estimated 1,148 people missing were believed to be trapped. At least 337 people are dead.

Some rescuers complained the excavation work was difficult with their simple tools, and heavy machines could not be trucked in on the submerged roads.

"We heard a dog barking early in the morning, but before we reached even halfway into the 7-meter-thick sludge, signs of life disappeared," a soldier said.

Rocks weighing 20 tonnes or more had come crashing down into homes, and they were impossible to remove by hand.

Moved by the rescuers' perseverance and with gratitude, many survivors rushed to help: some joined the rescue work while others offered whatever food or water they could find.

Liu Tao, a native of Zhouqu county who ran a fruit store with his mother, brought 30 tonnes of watermelons that remained intact in their cellar to the rescuers.

"It's a miracle we survived the disaster. We should do something to repay their kindness," he said.

About 10 seconds before their two-story house was uprooted Sunday, Liu and his mother woke up and fled.

Eager to help the rescuers, elderly people and children who survived the disaster rushed to get spring water from mountains for the soldiers, as the mudslide had cut off water supplies in the county.

"All my family survived the disaster, but it's sad to see the county reduced to ruins," said Yan Xiyun, 12, who hiked at least five times a day between the spring and the county seat, carrying pails of water.

Donations of cash and supplies were pouring in since Monday but most vehicles could not drive in on the roads that were submerged with mud and sludge. Villagers and volunteers had to carry supplies on their back from the stopping point about 10 km from the county seat.

"Each trip takes about four hours," said Liu Xiangyue, who distributes supplies at a shelter for survivors at Zhouqu No. 1 Middle School.

The instant noodles and bottled water they carried were often rationed out in a few minutes.

The Gansu provincial government has said each resident would get a daily allowance of 150 yuan for 15 days starting from Tuesday.

For three months, they will receive a benefit of 10 yuan in cash and 500 grams of grain each day, the government said in a notice Tuesday.

Families of the deceased will be given compensation of 8,000 yuan (US$1,181) for each death.

Families who were left homeless in the disaster will get 20,000 yuan to rebuild homes, while those whose houses were damaged will get 4,000 yuan for repairs.

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