On Jianshe Street in the devastated center of the town of Dujiangyan, amid mud and trash and slabs of concrete sheared from building facades, a group of young soldiers in green-gray raincoats stand in a semicircle, chests out and arms interlocked. They face off against the mourners and gawkers who have come to watch the bodies being carried out of the pile of tangled gray debris that was once the Xinjian Elementary School.
Zhang Xuede, 70, has kept vigil here for the better part of a day, since a 7.9-magnitude earthquake rocked this stretch of China's Sichuan province, killing at nearly 15,000 and injuring 26,000. Zhang's grandson was in class at the Xinjian school when the quake hit. In the aftermath, Zhang rushed to the collapsed school and helped lift students out of the rubble. "I uncovered several children," he says. "Some were dead, some were still alive. But I couldn't find my grandson." More than 24 hours and a night of cold rain later, Zhang still stands watch. But he has given up hope. "Your grandson?" a woman asks. "He's dead," the bleary-eyed Zhang replies.
It is a scene that repeats itself across this city of 600,000, located 31 miles (50 km) west of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu. Here, where the Sichuan plain meets the foothills of the Himalayas, at least two schools and one hospital suffered severe damage during the quake. Down the block from the elementary school, another group has gathered outside the Dujiangyan City Chinese Medicine Hospital that partially collapsed during the quake, trapping more than 100 patients. One woman, who wouldn't give her name, says her father was being treated in the hospital when the May 12 quake hit, and his wife and her cousins were visiting. Seven family members are now trapped under the rubble of the hospital. A lone rescue worker wields a long metal pole, futilely trying to move a slab of concrete. The woman says that public buildings like the hospital and schools are poorly built, and that is why they caved in during the quake. She points to the surrounding residential buildings, which despite damage to their facades didn't suffer catastrophic failure like the hospital.
Monday's earthquake, China's deadliest since 1976 when more than 200,000 died in a magnitude 7.5 temblor in the northeast city of Tangshan, has jolted the country into a frenzied race against time and death. Chinese state-run media estimated that there are 25,000 people trapped in collapsed structures in the quake zone, including 18,645 people in Mianyang, a city of more than 5 million. President Hu Jintao called for an all-out response. About 100,000 relief workers, including soldiers, police and medical teams, are working in the affected areas, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said on state television.
On the streets of Dujiangyan the rescue troops are ubiquitous. Military vehicles are lined up, and People's Armed Police and People's Liberation Army soldiers, kitted out in crisp, matching green camouflage, are battling rain and rubble as they try to reach trapped survivors and control emotional crowds. On a downtown street corner a group of armed police kept people back as a ladder truck lifted rescuers up to the sixth floor of a damaged apartment building. An old man peered through a window, waiting to be taken out. But when the ladder arrived he turned and ran back into his apartment, only to be coaxed out by a rescuer.
Despite the heavy presence of emergency responders in the city, there's still need for more. When backhoe operators from a Chengdu-based company stopped work clearing a collapsed apartment building as night fell Tuesday, the family of missing residents gathered around and demanded they continue. As they stood in the street, their debate illuminated only by car lights, a loudspeaker truck cruised by with a message: "Please stay calm. The State Council, the Central Committee, the Sichuan, Chengdu and Dujiangyan governments are trying their best to help. Earthquakes are not something that mankind can avoid."
Fu Likun, 56, has seen nothing of government aid. He, his mother and brothers escaped from their three-story house outside Dujiangyan as it crumbled in the quake. Now they are living on a sidewalk underneath a large red, blue and white plastic tarp. These makeshift tents are everywhere in the city, used by people whose homes were destroyed or who are too scared of the regular aftershocks to spend a night in a building. "Nobody has been here to help us," Fu says.
The aid work is focused on saving lives. But for some it will come too late. The woman outside the hospital said that she heard her father, who is buried in the rubble, respond when she called out his name yesterday. This morning when she called to him again, he said he didn't think he could hold out much longer.