MIANYANG, China – Everywhere you turned Wednesday, there was more bad news: The official death toll from China’s earthquake climbed to nearly 15,000, with thousands still missing; 391 dams were damaged; and in Mianyang county, 3,600 passengers were trapped in trains and 120 coal miners lost underground.
Although survivors at the epicenter of the magnitude 7.9 earthquake began receiving some aid, tens of thousands of others were in dire straits. They lacked food, water and shelter.
To begin meeting the yawning needs of survivors, the government airdropped supplies, and crews began rebuilding roads and bridges. Chinese citizens also stepped up in cities and mountain regions, donating money, at times sharing the little food or water available, and comforting one another under terrible conditions.
At the Red Cross Society of China offices in Beijing, volunteers struggled to answer telephones ringing off the hook with offers of help while others counted fat wads of cash as a steady stream of donors came in with money.
China Mobile set up a system that allows cell-phone users to donate money with a click on a text message.
The government had not set up a central hotline for people to inquire about their relatives as of late Wednesday, but FM-91.4, a traffic radio station in Chengdu, read on air the text messages from survivors in a bid to fill the vacuum. Some Internet sites were also posting messages.
Conditions in many parts of the country remained grim. Scores of people were hungry and thirsty and living outside because of collapsed or unsafe homes.
In Dujiangyan, Li Shirong huddled with his extended family under a plastic tarpaulin taking inventory of the remaining food supply. The family of seven had three bags of instant noodles.
“We will let the children eat first and drink what’s left of the soup,” he said.
As for water, he pointed with resignation to the meandering river that had turned an ominous brown from mudslides after Monday’s earthquake, the worst in the country in three decades. “We would never drink that water if we were not desperate.”
Elsewhere, residents said the situation was especially tough for people unable to make it to the center of town to seek help.
“I heard the government is passing out water and crackers, but we have not seen a thing,” said Liu Zhiyun, 77, who had carried his blind, 75-year-old wife down three flights of stairs to safety. “In three days I ate one bag of instant noodles. This morning I got a bucket and caught some rainwater to drink.”
The official death toll rose to 14,866, a figure almost certain to rise given that nearly twice that number remained buried under rubble in Sichuan province alone.
Disaster relief officials say their efforts have been slowed by destroyed roads and bridges, landslides and rain. Much of the aid has had to be delivered by dangerous air drops, while rescue workers were going in by foot.
Thousands of Chinese soldiers raced to repair the “extremely dangerous” cracks in the Zipingpu dam, the official New China News Agency said. Experts later declared it was safe.