Quake Survivors Desperate to Recover Loved Ones

In China, rescue workers struggled to reach the tens of thousands of people who remained buried in the aftermath of the earthquake, as the death toll climbed above 13,000. Co-host Renee Montagne talks to NPR's Melissa Block, who is in Chengdu, China.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Sichuan Province, tens of thousands of soldiers have joined the frantic search for survivors of China's devastating earthquake. That rescue effort has been made harder by rain and badly-damaged roads and bridges. Many survivors are living in the open, their homes destroyed, seeking shelter wherever they can find it.

A short while ago, we reached NPR's Melissa Block in the city of Dujiangyan.

MELISSA BLOCK: I have spent the whole day with a young couple whose apartment building was completely destroyed. And they've been trying for two days now to get heavy machinery in there to excavate the remains. They have a child who is not quite two, and his two grandparents were taking care of him. The mother had just left for work when the earthquake hit.

And when I saw them, they were running down the street, clinging to the arm of an excavator, leading it toward their home. That excavator has started work. It's clawed it way through huge piles of debris. And late this morning, they found three bodies in that building - not this family's relatives, three other bodies. I saw a woman's hand. As they uncover these bodies, the smell of death became overpowering.

And there are so many other stories like this all over the city of families desperately trying to get inside these buildings to find their loved ones and not the manpower and the machinery yet to help them out.

MONTAGNE: With this couple that you've spent time with, was it that they had to actually go out and found help?

BLOCK: They had gone to the local government offices. I'm sure it's a chaotic process, because so many people need help in this huge city. And you see a lot of army soldiers and military police here now. They seem to have come without any supplies. This family has run out and bought cotton gloves and cotton facemasks. They just ran out and got some water bottles. They're so grateful that they're here to help, and they now finally have brought in an excavator and a crane and a bulldozer to start getting rid of the big, big pieces of rubble.

But, you know, it's two days after the earthquake, and obviously the more time that goes by, the more hope fades.

MONTAGNE: I know in earthquakes, sometimes people survive for long time, and certainly families always have hope. Any indication at all? A cry? Anything?

BLOCK: We just saw some soldiers come from another building, saying they thought they had heard a sound. So that's one small sign of hope. When I met the mother this morning, she told me she was so hopeful that they could find her son, and the odds that they're facing here are so overwhelming. And you can imagine that story being repeated so many times - not just in this city, but in cities that people haven't even reached yet.

MONTAGNE: Melissa, I know that it is even hard for you to get information, having been there when this quake hit, but do you have any sense of the big picture of how much help the government is providing? Do you have any sense of how much of that is headed the way of these hard-hit areas?

BLOCK: It's really hard to get a handle on how this is being coordinated, how much relief is coming. I don't know how much aid supplies have arrived. I know they're accepting donations and money from foreign governments and foreign relief organizations. There's a food supply station at the stadium, so far from what I've been able to gather, one food and relief station to the whole city of a half a million people. The first couple of days they said the food was pretty much limited to children. They wanted to take care of the children first, and they do expect things to get better.

I have to say the people I've talked with have been so grateful for the aid they're getting. It's hard to imagine that people with so little can be grateful for the help they've gotten when things are this bad.

Right now, so many people are focused just on getting by. And I don't know where these people are going to go, Renee. I mean, it's so many thousands of people who are out of their homes, living on the street. What the long-term plan is for them, I don't know that anybody has answers for that.

MONTAGNE: Well, Melissa, thank you very much.

BLOCK: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And that's Melissa Block, speaking to us from the city of Dujiangyan. As I said, Melissa and Robert Siegel were there when the earthquake hit. Their reports, their personal stories and photos of the quake's aftermath are at npr.org.

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