HANWANG, China -- Soldiers rushed to shore up a dam cracked by this week's powerful earthquake, and rescuers came by helicopter and ship yesterday into the isolated epicenter but still were forced to dig for survivors with their bare hands.
Nearly 26,000 people remained buried in collapsed buildings from Monday's magnitude 7.9 earthquake, and the death toll of almost 15,000 was expected to climb as relief operations spread into the mountains of Sichuan province. The quake triggered landslides that blocked roads to hardest-hit areas.
Even as the rescue effort seemed to gather momentum - speeded by clearing weather after two days of rain - caring for tens of thousands of people made homeless across the disaster zone has stretched thin the government's resources.
Homeless victims begged for aid on roadsides, and people settled in for a third night in a growing sprawl of camps littered with garbage. In Hanwang, a town in one of the hardest-hit counties, survivors stood hoping for handouts, jostling to reach one vehicle where a passenger passed bottled water out the window.
"I'm numb," said Zhao Xiaoli, a 25-year-old nurse working at a makeshift triage center in a tire factory driveway. "The first day, hundreds of kids died ... The rest who came in had serious injuries. There was so little we could do for them."
Damage to the two-year-old Zipingpu Dam threatened downstream communities still digging out from the quake. Some 2,000 soldiers were sent to the dam, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Four-inch cracks scarred the dam, and landslides had poured down the surrounding hills, the business news magazine Caijing said on its Web site.
Although the government pronounced the dam safe late Tuesday after an inspection, Caijing said its waters were being emptied to relieve pressure. The Ministry of Water Resources issued a notice to check reservoirs nationwide, while the economic planning agency said nearly 400 dams, most of them small, were damaged by the quake.
The activist group International Rivers Network was involved in a campaign in 2001 and 2002 to protest funding for the Zipingpu Dam because of its proximity to a fault line, said Aviva Imhoff, the group's campaigns director.
Imhoff said the group obtained transcripts of a 2000 internal government meeting in which seismologists warned officials of the dangers of constructing the dam and the potential for it to be damaged in an earthquake, Imhoff said.
The Three Gorges dam, the world's largest, is about 350 miles east of the epicenter. The State Council Three Gorges Construction Committee said this week the dam was not damaged.
The scale of the devastation is raising questions about the quality of China's recent construction boom. Some builders cut corners, especially in outlying areas largely populated by the very young and very old.
Official figures for China earthquake victims:
Death toll: 14,866
Buried under rubble: 25,788Missing: 1,405