HANWANG, China — The Chinese government said Thursday that the number of people killed by this week’s earthquake in Sichuan province would probably more than double to 50,000 as rescuers dug out more victims — some still alive, but many more dead.
With the official death toll climbing to 19,509, China dropped its insistence on delivering rescue and medical assistance on its own.
A Japanese team of elite rescue workers arrived early today in the provincial capital, Chengdu. They are the first foreign aid workers at the scene, although China has been accepting donations of money and supplies. A Taiwanese team was also expected shortly, and officials said Russian, South Korean and Singaporean teams would join in soon.
The People’s Liberation Army mobilized one of its largest peacetime deployments of troops. More than 130,000 soldiers were reported to have reached the area, with thousands more on their way, according to the official New China News Agency.
“We will never give up hope looking for survivors,” Gao Qiang, vice minister of health, said Thursday at a news conference.
The government estimated that 4 million homes were destroyed and 10 million people affected — either killed, injured or left homeless. Many residential areas in the valleys are entombed in mud, after landslides triggered by the quake.
Gu Qinghui of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said most of the residents of Beichuan County, home to 13,000 people, were feared dead.
“This whole county has been destroyed; basically there is no Beichuan County anymore,” Gu told reporters visiting the region Thursday.
Government officials and citizens found themselves pressed to their limits in coping with the aftermath of Monday’s earthquake, the country’s worst in more than 30 years. Officials issued an emergency request for supplies, from cranes and bulldozers to shovels and hammers.
The rescue effort has been herculean. On the railroads alone, 56 trainloads of soldiers have been sent out along with 157 rail cars of ambulances and equipment. The main highway from Chengdu to Beichuan, about 40 miles from the epicenter, had convoys of ambulances and military trucks, some stretching half a mile. Tents, bottled water, medicine, blankets and jackets are pouring in.
But in some areas, with many roads, bridges and rail lines damaged, rescue workers have had to travel on foot. Chinese mountaineering clubs have been called to send trained climbers to reach the most remote areas.
In a now familiar pattern, rescue workers have unearthed the dead, placed them in yellow body bags, or tarps or blankets, and moved them to makeshift morgues using wheelbarrows and trucks. Families have struggled to identify their relatives’ bloated bodies by their clothes.
Troops dug burial pits. They repaired roads and bridges at the heart of the tragedy, mountainous Wenchuan County, which was the epicenter of the magnitude 7.9 quake. Although people have been known to survive for more than a week after a quake, their chances dim with each passing day. Paratroops working in the hardest-hit areas one day pulled out 13 survivors and 125 dead, officials said.
In Hanwang, where a hospital and several schools were destroyed along with countless homes, shops and cars, workers everywhere pushed themselves hard to dig out victims.
The effort went on around the clock at what remained of Dongqi Middle School. About half of the 600 schoolchildren were still missing. A 50-foot crane helped remove debris as rescuers hoped for a sign of life.
“It’s much more difficult than usual construction work, ” said crane operator Mao Zengbing, who volunteered his services. “If you’re not careful, you could kill someone or desecrate a dead body.”
Parents said they had long heard that the school, built in 1966, was in bad physical shape, but they had no idea it was so vulnerable. The school’s four floors collapsed, leaving only the walls, some with still-attached blackboards containing the day’s lessons. One section with the floors still intact had curtains tied together from the window on which students evidently tried to descend.
Several hundred people looked on Thursday as the workers removed another body. Parents crowded around, each one matching a mental image of what their child was last wearing against the dirty, bloated body rushed past.
“We push through, looking at the shoes and clothes,” said Xiao Hui, 40, whose 18-year-old son is missing. The family has been looking at bodies for three days. “The face is often too swollen to recognize.”
Distraught parents remained frustrated at what they felt was the slow pace and lack of information from the government. “The digging has been very slow, especially at night,” added Chen Yong, searching for his 18-year-old son Chen Chao. “If they were faster, more lives would be saved.”
The military’s role is not just to rescue and care for victims of the earthquake, but also to repair and inspect damage to infrastructure. Of particular concern are the numerous dams around the Minjiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze.
The largest of them, the 2-year-old Zipingpu dam, sustained serious cracks that were repaired, officials said, and the dam was declared safe. Officials said the water level in the dam had been lowered, eliminating the possibility of a catastrophic accident.
Aviva Imhoff, an expert with the Berkeley-based International Rivers Network, said there were 390 dams in the area that could present problems.
“Chinese seismologists have been warning for years about locating dams next to earthquake fault lines, but the government has ignored them,” Imhoff said. “If one of the larger dams breaks, it would be untold destruction downstream.”
Residents of the quake-hit area have complained that some smaller dams appeared to have burst. Fu Xingyi, 44, a construction worker, said dams around his village had disappeared under landslides.
“I was taking great risk just trying to walk out through the water released by the dam,” he said.
Chinese environmental authorities are also inspecting nuclear installations in Mianyang, 60 miles from the epicenter. A French nuclear watchdog, the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, said in a statement this week that “it is not possible at this stage to exclude damage to these installations,” although the group said it knew of no damage.
The disaster relief effort generally has received approval from international observers.
“They have a clear mission of what they have to do, and it looks like they are being efficient about it,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a specialist on the Chinese military at Boston University. “This is something the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] does well, mobilizing in civilian disasters.”
Ordinary Chinese continued their outpouring of help, donating money, sharing food and assisting strangers.
Some survivors who were ordered to evacuate the small town of Hongbai had helped one another make it to the city of Shifang as they walked for hours through treacherous mountain paths with washed-out roads. Many remained haunted by the earthquake.
“We ran out with the clothes on our backs,” Liu Wenbi said. “We tried to hold onto each other, but we were all knocked to the ground. When we got up, our house was gone and the sky was blackened with dust.”
“My cousin is still missing,” she said. “So many people were buried alive. It just makes me want to cry.”