Military helicopters dropped food and medicine to Chinese earthquake survivors who remained cut off Wednesday in remote mountain villages behind roads clogged by landslides. According to AP, the official death toll rose to nearly 15,000, and state media said tens of thousands more were buried or missing.
As help began to arrive in some of the hardest-to-reach areas, some victims trapped for more than two days under collapsed buildings were still being pulled out alive. But the enormous scale of the devastation meant that resources were stretched thin, and makeshift aid stations and refugee centers were springing up over the disaster area the size of Maryland.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted government officials as saying rescuers who hiked Wednesday into the city of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county — the epicenter of Monday`s magnitude 7.9 quake — found it "much worse than expected."
The official death toll rose Wednesday to 14,866, Xinhua said, but it was not immediately clear if that number included the 7,700 reported dead in Yingxiu. In Sichuan province alone, another 25,788 people were buried and 14,051 missing, provincial vice governor Li Chengyun said, according to Xinhua.
Unlike previous natural disasters in China, state media has reported prominently on the quake. State television has canceled regular programming to run 24-hour coverage.
Scenes of destruction and death have been shown, along with prominent focus on Premier Wen Jiabao, who rushed Monday to Sichuan to oversee the rescue work. He has been shown crawling into collapsed buildings to urge survivors to hang on, and seen reassuring children who had just lost their parents.
The toll was expected to rise further once rescuers reach other towns in Wenchuan that remain cut off from the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu more than two days after the quake. Roads leading to Wenchuan from all directions were still being cleared of debris, Feng Zhenglin, deputy minister of railway and transportation, said in Beijing.
The death toll for Mianyang city was also confirmed at 5,430, up from 3,629, on Wednesday, Xinhua said, with more than 18,000 people there still thought to be buried under crushed buildings.
At a middle school Sichuan province`s Qingchuan county where students were taking a noon nap when the quake demolished a three-story building, 178 children were confirmed dead in the rubble and another 23 remained missing, Xinhua said.
Storms that had prevented flights to some of the worst-hit areas finally cleared on Wednesday. Military helicopters were seen flying north over Dujiangyan, and Xinhua said two of them airdropped food, drinking water and medicine to Yingxiu.
Trains were on their way to Sichuan carrying quilts, drinking water, tents and military personnel, Ministry of Railways spokesman Wong Yongping said. All railways in the province were working except for a line where a 40-car freight train was trapped by a landslide in a tunnel and burned, he said.
Rescuers raced to save people trapped under flattened buildings.
A 34-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant was rescued after spending 50 hours under debris in Dujiangyan.
In the Beichuan region, a 3-year-old girl who was trapped for more than 40 hours under the bodies of her parents was pulled to safety, Xinhua said.
Rescuers found Song Xinyi on Tuesday morning, but were unable to pull her out right away due to fears the debris above her would collapse. She was fed and shielded from the rain until rescuers extricated her from the rubble.
Wen looked over her wounds, part of his highly publicized tour of the disaster area aimed at reassuring the public about the government`s response and to show the world that the country is ready to host the Beijing Olympics in August. Wednesday`s leg of the Olympic torch relay in the southeastern city of Ruijin began with a minute of silence.
Wen said some 100,000 troops and police had been dispatched to the disaster zone. He also visited a school Wednesday in Beichuan where two classroom buildings collapsed in the earthquake, including a school with 2,000 students that state TV said sustained "heavy casualties."
East of the epicenter in the town of Hanwang, the smell of incense hung over a crowd of sobbing relatives who walked among some 60 bodies wrapped in plastic, some covered with tributes of branches or flowers.
Nearby, rescuers in blue uniforms carried more bodies out of a makeshift morgue at the Dongqi sports arena. The dead appeared to have come from heavily damaged apartments and a school behind the arena, where people stood in stunned shock.
People from the town and surrounding areas packed into blue tents provided by disaster relief officials. A clock tower in the town center had stopped at 2:27, the time the quake hit.
The Mianzhu No. 3 Hospital was obliterated, and the seven-story main Hanwang Hospital collapsed, its third floor suddenly smashing to the ground. People on the upper floors climbed out on bed sheets tied together.
Surviving medical staff set up a triage center in the driveway of a tire factory, but could only provide basic care.
"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," said Zhao Xiaoli, a nurse at Hanwang Hospital, who described herself as "numb."
Emergency vehicle sirens sounded every few minutes. An ambulance drove in, delivering a man pulled from the rubble and covered in dust.
"There will be a lot more people. So many still haven`t been found," said Zhao.
Residents complained that delays in aid had caused more deaths in the immediate aftermath of the quake.
Zhang Chuanlin, a 27-year-old factory worker, said his 52-year-old mother was trapped while watching television with her friend. No rescue workers were around so he started to dig by himself.
"No one was helping me and then two strangers came and dug through the rubble. They found her an hour later," he said. "When they pulled her out I couldn`t look, I just couldn`t look when they pulled her out."
A man who gave only his surname Li said he had suffered a double tragedy. His wife was killed while watching TV with Zhang`s mother and his daughter died when her school collapsed.
The child did not die right away and could be heard saying, "Please help me daddy, please rescue me," right after the earthquake, he said, but there were no authorities to save her.
In Dujiangyan, a mother pleaded with police for information about her husband who was working in Wenchuan, blocking one of the few roads leading to the epicenter.
"I`ve begged and begged them to help me look for my husband," Li Zhenhua said, showing her husbands ID card to a crowd of onlookers. "I can`t go by myself because I`ve got a little baby and elderly parents here, so I can`t leave."
"The government is doing nothing for us. The government won`t help us," she said, over and over.