May 17, 2008 / 1:03 AM / 9 years ago

Thousands flee as China lake bank feared broken

5 Min Read

<p>A survivor carries his baby on his back as he and some 1000 other survivors make a 9-hour walk from the village of Qingping to Hanwang, after the village was isolated because of the earthquake on Monday, in Sichuan Province May 16, 2008.Nir Elias</p>

BEICHUAN, China (Reuters) - A Chinese county near the epicenter of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake was ordered to evacuate on Saturday amid fears a lake would burst its banks, prompting thousands to flee to the hills.

China put the total Sichuan quake death toll at 28,881 but has said it expects it to exceed 50,000. About 4.8 million people have lost their homes and the days are numbered in which survivors can be found.

Forty-six seriously injured people were in "dire need of help" in Beichuan, where the official Xinhua news agency said earlier the water level was rising rapidly and "may burst its bank at any time".

A witness said by telephone the military was evacuating everyone in Beichuan, even rescue workers.

A Reuters journalist fled a place near the Beichuan Middle School, which President Hu Jintao visited on Friday. Soldiers were talking on the radio saying "all retreat" and there was a lot of dust in the air. The soldiers were leaving fast.

Hong Kong cable television said some 1.2 million people were being evacuated in Qingchuan, about 90 km (55 miles) northeast of Beichuan, as rising waters threatened to burst a lake's banks.

Both lakes were formed after landslides blocked river flows.

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.

A cable repair worker was killed on Saturday, five days after the original disaster, when hit by rocks as a moderate aftershock, one of hundreds, hit Lixian county.

Many survivors were also found, including a German tourist who was pulled from rubble in Wenchuan after being buried for 114 hours, Xinhua said.

A 69-year-old villager from Beichuan was saved after being buried for 119 hours.

On Friday, soldiers pulled 2,538 people from rubble, 165 of whom were still alive, cabinet spokesman Guo Weimin said, an indication hope of finding survivors was slim.

"Although the time for the best chance of rescue, the first 72 hours after an earthquake, has passed, saving lives remains the top priority of our work," Hu told distraught survivors just over a week after a jubilant China celebrated the Olympic torch reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

In earthquakes elsewhere in the world, survivors have been found a week or more after the disaster. In Baguio in the Philippines in 1990, a cook was found alive in the rubble of a shattered hotel after two weeks.

<p>Survivors queue for food at a disaster relief centre housed in a sports complex in Mianyang, Sichuan province May 17, 2008. China has put the known death toll at over 22,000 but has said it expects it to exceed 50,000 days after the most destructive earthquake to hit modern China, state media said on Saturday.Stringer</p>

He had drunk his own urine and drops of rainwater to stay alive. A man and a woman trapped for 11 days in an elevator shaft in the hotel were also rescued.

Among other survivors on Saturday, Xinhua said 33 people were dug out of the rubble in Beichuan, one of the worst hit areas. One young man was rescued after being buried for 104 hours and troops evacuated 18 scientists trapped in a forest in Mianzhu.

Premier Wen Jiabao said the 7.9 magnitude 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 northeastern city of Tangshan which killed up to 300,000 people.

Slideshow (54 Images)

Hygiene Worries

And as the weather gets warmer, survivors were increasingly worried about hygiene and asking 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."

In Sichuan and neighboring Chongqing, at least 17 reservoirs have been 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 is also on precautionary alert against possible radiation leaks, according to a government website.

China'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 130,000 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.

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Dujiangyan, Guo Shipeng and Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing, and Donny Kwok in Hong Kong; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by David Fox

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