Chinese Premier, U.N. Chief Visit Hard-Hit Town

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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with medical staff. i

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with medical staff during his visit to the earthquake-hit town of Yingxiu on Saturday. Nicky Loh - Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Nicky Loh - Pool/Getty Images
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with medical staff.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with medical staff during his visit to the earthquake-hit town of Yingxiu on Saturday.

Nicky Loh - Pool/Getty Images

The head of China's government said Saturday that the death toll from the May 12 earthquake could climb as high as 80,000, up from the current figure of more than 60,000. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spoke in a devastated township near the epicenter of the quake.

Wen and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon visited the town of Yingxiu, nestled in a mountain gorge beside the Min River. Chinese military officials told Ban that 8,000 of the town's 18,000 residents are either dead or missing.

Wen said his government had reacted to the disaster quickly and openly.

"From the outset, we've stuck to the principle of putting people first," he said, "and made saving lives our first priority. Our government leaders arrived on the scene at the height of the disaster."

Ban, who had just come from cyclone-hit Myanmar, praised China's handling of the quake and pledged the U.N.'s continuing assistance.

Nearly two weeks after the quake, survivors are still straggling into Yingxiu after walking for days out of the mountains. Among them was a short, round woman named Gao Panyong.

"Our village was hard hit," she recalls. "Now I've got nothing left. My mother died. My husband died. My two children and I barely made it out alive. Everyone in our village fled. All the dead bodies smelled awful."

About 7,000 soldiers have set up camp in the town.

Hu Xianzhong, a rural dentist from East China, is among the thousands of volunteers also working in Yingxiu. Clad in a white jumpsuit, he sprays the refugee camp with disinfectant. He has also sprayed many of the corpses that continue to be dug out of the rubble. He remembers coming across the body of one young student.

"This kid was an elementary school student," he says. "When I found her, she was holding this pen. See, the pen was smashed by a boulder right here. I picked it up and kept it as a souvenir. The kid was wearing a red kerchief. It was so sad."

In Yingxiu and elsewhere, soldiers are putting up light, prefabricated homes that will house refugees until something more permanent can be built. The government says it will take about three months to build temporary homes for the roughly 5 million homeless.

Zhang Jian, an official with the local prefecture government, says getting all the residents into one place is not easy.

"These survivors have lived here for generations," he says. "They are unwilling to leave their hometown, and they have set up tents next to the ruins of their former homes. But this is not good for controlling the spread of diseases, so the government has moved them all here."

In the longer term, Zhang says, officials will still have to decide whether to rebuild the shattered town in its current location or build it from scratch elsewhere.

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