Chinese Quake Survivors Fill Makeshift Camps

Rescue efforts continue in southwestern China, with thousands of people still trapped in rubble created by the country's worst earthquake in decades. Thousands more have fled their homes and are sleeping outdoors.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

NOAH ADAMS, Host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

Hundreds of thousands of people in southwestern China are out of their homes after yesterday's 7.9 magnitude earthquake. An estimated 12,000 have died, thousands more still wait for help. Some crowd the roads with their families; others remain trapped in the wreckage of their homes, businesses, and schools.

The Chinese government says nearly 50,000 police and soldiers have been sent now to the disaster zone in Sichuan province. And earlier today, President Bush pledged $500,000 in earthquake relief.

NORRIS: Our co-host Melissa Block is in the city of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province. Yesterday, she was in the middle of conducting an interview when the earthquake hit. This morning, she traveled for three hours toward the quake's epicenter. I spoke with her earlier, and she described the scene along the way.

MELISSA BLOCK: You see people living in essentially tent cities along the road. They're under tarps, they're under umbrellas, they're under plastic sheeting, they've moved mattresses outside, they've moved things to cook with outside, they're camping outside because they don't want to go back into their houses. There have been so many aftershocks, and nobody wants to be inside and a lot of these houses probably are structurally unsound.

NORRIS: And you also made it to another small village, Gui Xi, what did you find there?

BLOCK: Yeah, it was really interesting, we were driving along this road to a - sort of wending our way up through the mountains to the northeast of Chengdu, maybe 90 miles or so from the epicenter of the earthquake, and as we got closer to this village where we ended up, we saw these massive boulders that had rolled down the mountains and landed in the middle of the road and were blocking half of it, so we sort of weaved a course through - and I mean, huge boulders, maybe 10 or 12 feet across.

And then we got to this little village, you know, as we were driving through, you noticed that damage that seemed fairly light a village back, you know, maybe the tiles had been blown off of roofs, and progressively, it got worse and worse and worse. You'd see a house that had caved-in, then you saw several houses that were demolished. And then we got to the village of Gui Xi, which was really quite devastated. I mean, a lot of houses just pulverized.

But the stories we heard there were - a lot of them were from people who'd come from villages that were even harder hit, and were coming to this village for help.

NORRIS: So you've had a chance to actually talk to some of the people that were in Gui Xi?

BLOCK: Yeah, and especially I - I talked to one woman, a woman named Jao Rang(ph), she's 36 years old. She had walked 30 kilometers, 20 miles with four children, ages nine to 15. She was wearing heels and they talked to us about sort of why they had left their village, which had been completely devastated, it's in Bi-Chuan(ph) county, which is this county where 80 percent of the buildings are said to be destroyed. They were coming. She had injured her wrist. One of the boys she was with, a nine-year-old boy, had an injured eye and they were coming to try to get help because in their village, there's rally nothing for them there. The question is: where do they go from here?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

JAO RANG: (Through translator) I don't know, I don't know. I thought I would just sit down, you know, when I find a proper place. (Unintelligible) save our lives, our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

BLOCK: The first thing you want to do is save your families life?

RANG: (Through translator) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: Do you have anything to eat? Do you have any clothes?

RANG: (Through translator) (Unintelligible) you know, we live our life like a beggar.

BLOCK: And that's pretty much the story for them and a lot of these other folks we saw coming through with the clothes on their backs, and hoping that they could find something along the way.

NORRIS: Melissa, one day after this earthquake struck, reports still vary wildly. Do you have any sense of the devastation in some of those more remote areas? Are you hearing things, if not from the official news agency, from some of the survivors in those areas?

BLOCK: It's so hard to get a sense of the scope of this, Michele. I mean, you do hear these incredibly huge numbers of people believed buried in - in just one city, you know, numbering in the tens of thousands. This woman, Jao Rang, whom we just heard from, is from a town of 15,000 people. When I asked her how many people she thought had been killed in her town, she figured a third, and that would be 5,000 people in this one fairly small town, alone. And I think until rescue workers get to these places, we really have no idea.

NORRIS: Melissa, are you still feeling aftershocks?

BLOCK: You know, there have been a number of aftershocks, quite powerful ones, about two dozen aftershocks of magnitude five or more. I get text message alerts from the U.S. Geological Service when an aftershock has hit. And, you know, I've bolted out of bed the other night when one hit at four in the morning. It's a terrifying feeling, we were talking about this tonight and you sort of after having gone to this earthquake, you feel like you have kind of a muscle memory for those vibrations. You know, all of your sort of adrenaline starts flowing, it's a terrifying thing, and that's certainly why you see a lot of these people who are sleeping out on the streets all over this province.

NORRIS: All right. Well, Melissa, I just have one last question. The tape that so many asked of us have heard now have you describing what actually happened, shifting almost into play-by-play mode as you're experiencing this incredible sensation, I'm just curious how you were able to move to that moment. Have you had a time to even think about that?

BLOCK: You know, I haven't heard that tape, and I'm really curious to listen to what it sounds like. I think, because it's such a surreal sensation, I'm sure I would have sounded very different if I had looked around and buildings were falling down all around me, which they weren't. I mean, the street was waving, buildings were shaking, cars were jiggling, but I wasn't seeing devastation all around me. And so, you sort of are taking it in and thinking, what's going on here? What is this? This is - it was my first earthquake, I'd never been through anything like it.

NORRIS: Well, Melissa, thanks so much. Please stay safe, we'll be talking to you again soon.

BLOCK: Okay, thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That was my co-host Melissa Block in Chengdu, China.

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Sichuan Quake Claims 12,000; Rescuers Scrambling

Audio is not available

Audio is not available

Witnessing a Quake

Melissa Block was in the process of recording an interview in Chengdu when Monday's earthquake hit. She fled the building and then reported on the scene.

The sound of the earthquake in progress, recorded by Melissa Block

More reports from the scene in Sichuan province:

Map of the earthquake's reach.

Map of the earthquake's reach. Alice Kreit/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alice Kreit/NPR

The death toll from a massive earthquake in China's Sichuan province was expected to soar Tuesday, as rescue workers scrambled to find survivors buried beneath rubble and debris.

The official death toll already has surpassed 12,000. The state's Xinhua News Agency said nearly 19,000 people were still buried in debris in and around Mianyang, a city about 60 miles east of the epicenter.

Thousands are feared to have been buried under factories, schools and other buildings that collapsed in Monday's magnitude 7.9 quake.

On Tuesday, fears increased that few survivors would be found under the rubble. Only 58 people have been rescued from demolished buildings across the quake area, China Seismological Bureau spokesman Zhang Hongwei told Xinhua. In one county, 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed.

Some 20,000 soldiers and police arrived at the disaster area to help with the relief effort, and 30,000 more were on the way, the Defense Ministry told Xinhua.

Impassable or debris-strewn roads hampered the Chinese army and other relief workers.

"What you have on the road that leads out through this area, and other roads, I believe, is you have rock slides," said NPR's Robert Siegel. "The roads are cut into mountains, and the earthquake shook loose rocks, in some cases, huge boulders the size of SUVs. And in other cases, entire mountainsides seemed to collapse on villages."

In Wenchuan county, soldiers hiked past blocked roads to reach the town of Yinxiu, near the epicenter. Of its 9,000 residents, only 2,300 were found, the state TV quoted local emergency official He Biao as saying.

The scene was grim throughout the quake zone. Rescue teams brought people evacuated from the hard-hit town of Beichuan to Mianyang's sports stadium for food and shelter. Outside the railway station, police shouted in megaphones, telling people where they could get free rice porridge.

Television footage of Beichuan showed few buildings standing amid piles of rubble in a narrow valley.

Meanwhile, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the United States would contribute $500,000 — and more, if requested — to help initial recovery efforts.

She said President Bush offered condolences in a telephone conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

From NPR and wire reports

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