BEICHUAN, China, (Reuters) – Thousands of Chinese fled their homes on Saturday amid fears a lake could burst its banks, hampering rescue efforts after the deadliest earthquake in more than three decades killed about 29,000 people.
Rescue workers returned to Beichuan county, near the epicentre of the quake, in Sichuan province, but many residents were too frightened to return, nervous about a lake formed after aftershocks triggered landslides blocking the flow of a river.
“After briefly evacuating, rescue work returned to normal at Beichuan,” an official Web site (www.china.com.cn) said, blaming the evacuation on a false alarm.
A paramilitary officer had told Reuters earlier that the likelihood of the lake bursting its banks was “extremely big”.
The situation was “very dangerous because there are still tremors causing landslides that could damage the dam”, said Luo Gang, a building worker who left the southeastern port city of Xiamen and rushed home to look for his missing fiancee.
Rescue work had been complicated by bad weather, treacherous terrain and hundreds of aftershocks.
“Although the time for the best chance of rescue … has passed, saving lives remains the top priority of our work,” President Hu Jintao told distraught survivors just over a week after a jubilant China celebrated the Olympic torch relay reaching the summit of Mount Everest.
As the weather becomes warmer, survivors were worried about hygiene and asked questions about their longer-term future. “What we don’t need now is more instant noodles,” said truck driver Wang Jianhong in the city of Dujiangyan. “We want to know now what will happen with our lives.” There has been growing concern about the safety of dams and reservoirs which have been weakened in the mountainous province of Sichuan, an area about the size of Spain.
In Sichuan and neighbouring Chongqing, 17 reservoirs were damaged, with some dams cracked or leaking water. Several are on the Min river, which tumbles through the worst-hit areas between the Tibetan plateau and the Sichuan plain.
The Lianhehua dam, built in the late 1950s northwest of Dujiangyan, showed cracks big enough to put a fist in.
“When the dam is in this shape, we cannot feel relaxed,” said farmer Feng Binggui who has moved from his village below the dam into the hills.
China has said it expects the final death toll from Monday’s 7.9 magnitude earthquake to exceed 50,000. About 4.8 million people have lost their homes and the days are numbered in which survivors can be found.
Cabinet spokesman Guo Weimin, taking a long pause to compose himself as he read from an updated casualty report at a news conference, put the death toll so far at 28,881.
Premier Wen Jiabao said the quake was “the biggest and most destructive” since before the Communist revolution of 1949 and the quick response had helped reduce casualties. That compares even with the 1976 tremor in the northern city of Tangshan which killed up to 300,000 people.
Hong Kong cable television said some 1.2 million people were also evacuated from Qingchuan, 90 km (55 miles) northeast of Beichuan, as rising waters threatened to burst a lake’s banks. But there was no independent confirmation of this.
Sichuan Vice-Governor Li Chengyun said more than 188,100 people have been injured and about 10,600 people remain buried under rubble. About 2.6 million tents are needed to shelter 4.8 million displaced residents, he added.
A cable repair worker was killed on Saturday, three months before Beijing hosts the summer Olympics, when hit by rocks as a moderate aftershock hit Lixian county.
President Hu lauded rescue workers for their bravery in Wenchuan, epicentre of the quake, when an aftershock struck.
In a glimmer of hope that more people could be found alive, 33 people were rescued in Beichuan, including a 69-year-old villager who had been buried for 119 hours. Troops evacuated 18 scientists trapped in a forest in nearby Mianzhu.
China is on precautionary alert against possible radiation leaks, a government Web site said. The country’s chief nuclear weapons research lab is in Mianyang, along with several secret atomic sites, but there are no nuclear power stations.
China has sent 150,000 troops to the disaster area, but roads buckled by the quake and blocked by landslides have made it hard for supplies and rescuers to reach the worst-hit areas.
Offers of help have flooded in and foreign rescue teams from Japan, Russia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore have arrived. Donations topped 6 billion yuan ($857 million).