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 the 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 refugee camps littered with garbage. In Hanwang, a town in one of the hardest-hit counties, survivors stood hoping for handouts from cars, jostling with one another to reach to 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 the driveway of a tire factory. "The first day, hundreds of kids died when a school collapsed. 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 top of the dam, and landslides had poured down the surrounding hills, the business news magazine Caijing said on its website in a report from the scene.
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, and the economic planning agency said nearly 400 dams, most of them small, were damaged by the quake.
Hundreds of rivers snake through the mountainous Tibetan plateau before descending into the fertile Sichuan basin, where they provide critical irrigation.
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 massive Three Gorges dam, the world's largest, is about 350 miles east of the epicenter. The information office of the State Council Three Gorges Construction Committee said earlier this week that there was no damage to the dam.
The official death toll rose yesterday to 14,866, and in Sichuan Province 25,788 people were buried and 1,405 were missing, said the provincial vice governor, Li Chengyun, according to Xinhua.
An already massive military operation gathered speed, with nearly 100,000 soldiers and police mobilized. After two days of rain that prevented relief flights, People's Liberation Army helicopters flew 90 sorties to the epicenter in the county of Wenchuan and other areas to drop food, medicine, and tents and to ferry out 156 injured people, Xinhua reported.
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 the very old.
With help slow in arriving, some fled Yingxiu on foot, carrying injured family members in wheelbarrows.
One woman "carried a dead infant wrapped in white clothes as if the baby was alive," the agency said, citing a reporter who hiked to the area.
Ships from a temporary dock built at a reservoir sailed to Yingxiu, but blocked roads meant heavy equipment could not be brought in. Most rescuers were using their hands, Xinhua reported.
The death toll from the quake was expected to rise when rescuers reach other towns in Wenchuan that are still cut off.
"The Communist Party Central Committee has not forgotten this place," Premier Wen Jiabao said after flying by helicopter to Wenchuan.
President Hu Jintao presided at an emergency meeting of the party's powerful Politburo, urging the military, police, and others to redouble rescue and relief efforts.
A 34-year-old woman who was eight months' pregnant was rescued after spending 50 hours under debris in the Dujiangyan area.
But the rescuers called off the search for four others still trapped in the collapsed building, leaving only dogs to sniff for signs of life.