China quake toll passes 20,000 (video)
The full horror of the devastating China earthquake began to emerge Wednesday as rescuers discovered whole towns all but wiped off the map, pushing the death toll well above 20,000. Military and police teams punched into the heart of the disaster zone, with 100 troops parachuting into a county that was previously cut off while planes and helicopters air-dropped emergency supplies, reported AFP. But the message that came back from this mountainous corner of southwestern Sichuan province was that town after town was flattened by the 7.9-magnitude quake that struck two days ago. The death toll has soared well above 20,000, but that toll is rising by the hour as more information comes in from stricken communities. "The losses have been severe," Wang Yi, who heads an armed police unit sent into the epicentre zone, was quoted as saying by Sichuan Online news site. "Some towns basically have no houses left. They have all been razed to the ground." At least 7,700 people died in the small town of Yingxiu alone, state media cited a local government official as saying, with only 2,300 surviving. Across Sichuan, countless thousands more people are missing or buried under the rubble of shattered homes, schools and factories. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said 100,000 military personnel and police had been mobilised, indicating the epic scale of the disaster. "Time is life," he told rescuers. The destruction around the epicentre in remote Wenchuan county is massive, with whole mountainsides sheared off, highways ripped apart and building after building levelled. The figures are numbing: more than 5,400 dead in Mianyang, up to 5,000 in Beichuan, 3,000 in Mianzhu, 2,600 in Deyang, 500 so far in Wenchuan, hundreds more in the provincial capital Chengdu and other towns and cities. But far beyond the numbers is the human tragedy behind China's worst quake in a generation as rescue teams pull bodies and badly injured survivors out of the ruins while grief-stricken families search for their loved ones. He Xinghao, 15, was not among the lucky few. His body was dragged from the debris of a school 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the epicentre. Like many other Chinese of his age, strict population policies had made him an only child, and he was showered with affection by his entire family. "He was such a good and well-behaved boy. He always did his homework," said his aunt, Ge Mi, as fresh tears flowed from her reddened eyes. Cries for help were heard from a flattened school in Yingxiu, where people tried to dig out survivors from the twisted metal and concrete with their bare hands, state media said. The air drop started with planes and helicopters flying dozens of sorties, dropping tonnes of food and relief aid into the worst-hit zone, most of it cut off from the outside world by landslides and road closures. As well as Yingxiu, CCTV television said air drops were also made in nearby Mianyang, Mianzhu and Pengzhou, while helicopters flew to Wenchuan with food, drinks , tents, communications equipment and other supplies. The rescue effort has been badly disrupted since Monday by heavy rain , and the Meteorological Authority forecast more later in the week, raising the risk of fresh landslides. Wednesday's leg of the Olympic torch relay in eastern Jianxi province began with a minute's silence before the runners set off. Organisers of the Beijing Olympics are scaling down the relay as the torch makes it way to the capital for the Games in August, in a further blow to its troubled round-the-world journey after earlier protests over Tibet. World powers including the United States, European Union and United Nations as well as the International Olympic Committee have rallied round with offers of help. China welcomed the offers but said conditions were "not yet ripe" to allow in foreign rescue teams, citing damage to transport links. A Japanese foreign ministry official in charge of emergency aid said Tokyo offered rescue teams with sniffer dogs, but China had made no request. Australian and South Korean expertise was also politely declined, although China did accept one million dollars in aid from Seoul. "We were told that China cannot receive rescuers now due to poor condition of transportation systems," a Japanese foreign ministry official explained.