Rescuers Comb Quake Rubble For Signs Of Life

High in the mountains of western China, rescuers are searching for victims of the massive earthquake that struck earlier this week. The rescue teams are clogging the single road leading to the quake zone.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's turn, now, to a natural disaster high in the mountains of western China. Rescuers are searching for victims of the massive earthquake that struck there two days ago. The rescue teams are clogging the single road leading to the quake zone, and survivors whose homes were destroyed slept outdoors last night as temperatures dipped to near-freezing. The death toll now stands at nearly 800.

After an arduous trek, NPR's Anthony Kuhn has reached one of the villages that has been hit hardest. He joins us now to talk about it. And, Anthony, what are you seeing there?

ANTHONY KUHN: Well, Renee, it's been a very busy day of rescue work. I spent some of the day at a rescue site where they went at the crumbled hotel, first with a excavator and then with shovels and then with hands. And some people were pulled out - some dead, some alive. It's now the third day, local time, since the earthquake hit.

It's a fairly small area. It's a much smaller area than the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan, and so they've been able to get heavy machinery, troops and rescue teams in here pretty quickly. But they're still fighting hard to dig people out of the rubble.

MONTAGNE: Are there particular difficulties to this rescue effort, I mean, aside from the obvious, that it's really far away and hard to get to?

KUHN: Well, another is the altitude. This town is about almost two miles above sea level and so the oxygen is considerably thinner. And so a lot of the rescue workers are suffering from altitude sickness. Some of the rescue dogs are suffering from altitude sickness. And also, this is in a very remote corner. No matter which capital city you come from it takes a long time. It took me 12 hours. I felt like I was driving overland, across Nevada, or something. It was spectacular but very grueling.

MONTAGNE: That must also make it hard to get in the basics, like food and water and shelter.

KUHN: That's right. They're still short of tents, short of blankets. People have been sleeping out in the open because they're afraid their buildings are damaged and they're afraid that numerous aftershocks will crumble those buildings. You know, basically, when you come in here, you have to bring all your own food and water because there's none available here. There's no electricity, so it's very basic.

And I was at a spot where the army was distributing tents. And it became a little bit panicky because people were so worried that they wouldn't have anything overhead when the temperature dips down to freezing or below at night.

MONTAGNE: And, Anthony, that corner of China has a large ethnic Tibetan population. Does it make it politically sensitive or affect how the government is responding?

KUHN: Well, this is a really interesting question, Renee. I was out today and I saw a lot of Tibetan Buddhist lamas who were helping to dig survivors out of the rubble, giving rights for the deceased, pitching in in every way they could. And, you know, Tibetan Buddhists have this tradition of good works and charity.

And the government is used to taking the lead and not letting civil society take the lead. Another thing they have to watch out for, of course, is burial practices. The government is burying a lot of the dead who are ethnic Tibetans, and it has to be careful that it doesn't offend them by not respecting their practices. So, that is very much an issue.

And this was one of the many areas around the Tibetan plateau that saw civil unrest back in 2008.

MONTAGNE: Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from the Tibetan plateau in China.

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