China: Quake Death Toll Could Hit 50,000

DEYANG, China (CBS/AP) China's Cabinet says the death toll could hit 50,000 from this week's powerful earthquake in Sichuan province alone.

CCTV reported the figure from the State Council on its Thursday evening news broadcast.

Sichuan Vice Governor Li Chengyun told a news conference in the provincial capital of Chengdu that the official death toll had reached at least 19,500 in Sichuan province alone where Monday's quake was centered.

Tens of thousands of people are still trapped in collapsed buildings or are missing.

Meanwhile, China ordered dozens more helicopters to drop aid into remote areas of Sichuan and issued a rare public appeal for rescue equipment as it struggled to cope with the aftermath of the powerful quake that affected 10 million people.

Rescuers broke through key roads to the epicenter that had been blocked by debris since Monday's 7.9 magnitude quake, allowing them to move heavy equipment to the worst-affected areas. Previously, soldiers riding to isolated mountain villages on helicopters and small boats had been forced to dig for survivors with their hands.

Three mountainous towns north of the provincial capital of Chengdu were still cut off, the official Xinhua News Agency said, with 20,000 residents trapped in the towns of Qingping, Jinhua and Tianchi. The number of casualties was unknown.

Xinhua said a team of 500 People's Liberation Army soldiers carrying medicine and food were attempting to hike into the towns again.

Troops buried bodies wrapped in white sheets in a mass grave lined with lime near the city of Shifang, where chemical plants collapsed in the earthquake. About 50 troops wearing helmets and facemasks were using a large mechanical shovel to dig.

Plans for the Defense Ministry to deploy 101 more helicopters underscored worries that a death toll of almost 15,000 will skyrocket unless help arrives soon. Nearly 26,000 people remained buried in collapsed buildings, and Xinhua said the quake directly affected 10 million people in 44 counties and districts in Sichuan alone.

Roads were cleared to two key areas that felt the brunt of the quake's force, with workers making it to the border of Wenchuan county at the epicenter and also through to hard-hit Beichuan county, Xinhua reported.

The Chengdu Military Area Command also planned to airdrop 50,000 packets of food, 5,000 cotton-padded quilts and clothes there, part of the military rescue operation that has grown to more than 116,000 soldiers and police.

The official death toll stood at 14,866, and in Sichuan province more than 27,000 people were buried or missing, according to Xinhua.

The Ministry of Information Industry issued a rare appeal to the Chinese public calling for donations of rescue equipment including hammers, shovels, demolition tools and rubber boats. The plea on the ministry's Web Site said, for example, that 100 cranes were needed.

In Dujiangyan, the city was clogged with buses and trucks decked out with banners from companies saying they were offering aid to the disaster area. One tour bus was stuffed full of water bottles, cartons of biscuits and instant noodles.

CBS News reporter Celia Hatton said a further catastrophe was averted Wednesday when 2,000 workers successfully repaired cracks in the Zipingpu Dam, upriver from Dujiangyan, which had put much of the surrounding area at risk from inundation.

Public donations so far have totaled 877 million yuan ($125 million) in both cash and goods.

After days of refusing foreign relief workers, China accepted an offer from Japan to send a rescue team, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday. The announcement posted on the ministry Web site did not mention allowing any other foreign aid workers.

A cargo plane carrying tents and medical supplies donated by Taiwanese citizens left Thursday for rival China, officials said. A second plane was to head for China later Thursday.

An Air Macau cargo plane carrying 45 tons of aid materials was to arrive in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, after a brief stopover in Macau, the air carrier said in a statement.

China Airlines said it would dispatch a charter flight to Chengdu later Thursday with 100 tons of blankets, sleeping bags and medical supplies in the first humanitarian direct flight between Taiwan and the mainland in nearly 60 years, the Taiwanese airline said.

On Wednesday, Taiwan's government said it would offer China 800 million New Taiwan dollars ($25.8 million) in earthquake relief aid.

Taiwan and China split during civil war in 1949, and the sides have banned regular direct links and other formal contacts as political disputes persist. Beijing claims the self-governed island is part of its territory, to be reunified by force if necessary.

As the rescue effort gathered momentum, the depth of the problem of tens of thousands homeless stretched government resources.

North of Chengdu in Deyang, the largest town near the devastated areas of Hanwang and Mianyang, thousands of people have streamed into the city hospital since Monday, mostly with head or bone injuries.

Patients heavily wrapped in bandages and with cuts and bruises were huddled in canvas tents in the hospital's parking lot.

"Our doctors have worked continuously since Monday and people keep coming in. We have to keep strengthening our measures to keep up," said Luo Mingxuan, the Communist Party secretary of the hospital.

There were piles of donated clothing for survivors at the hospital and stands for them to make free telephone calls. Handwritten notes with names of the injured were posted on a board in front of the hospital's emergency section, where ambulances arrived every few minutes.

A group of 33 American, British and French tourists were airlifted from Wolong, site of the world's most famous panda preserve, to the provincial capital of Chengdu on Thursday morning, Xinhua reported. All were in good health, Xinhua said.

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