"There Are No More Signs Of Life"

By: CBS/AP
By: CBS/AP

(CBS/AP) Gone is the constant whine of sirens, the legion of shovel-toting soldiers and orange-suited rescue workers rushing from one mountain of debris to the next.

The town of Beichuan now sits abandoned, except for a handful of villagers returning to scrounge through the rubble for their belongings, and workers in white protective suits, masks and black rubber boots spraying disinfectant.

Excavators and cranes have started to demolish the few buildings left standing. Dogs and chickens roam the streets.

Ten days after China's worst disaster in a generation, it appears the search for survivors - and even the dead - was giving way to the first steps toward reconstruction.

The smell of bleach was overpowering as workers sprayed the disinfectant on buildings, trees, car wheels and the soles of shoes of people leaving Beichuan, where thousands are still likely buried. A layer of lime - used as a disinfectant to sprinkle on bodies - covered roads and any surface where corpses were yet to be recovered.

"There are no more signs of life," said 24-year-old soldier Li Zichuan. He watched excavators demolishing what is left of the Beichuan Middle School, where residents say hundreds of students and teachers were killed.

"During the recovery operation, we dug many bodies up here, so now all that is left is to disinfect the place and then demolish it."

The bottom two floors of the five-story school collapsed in the quake, leaving a squat, leaning wreck.

Rescuing trapped survivors was the first priority of the massive military-led response to the May 12 quake, and teams have pulled 33,434 people from the rubble alive, officials say.

Now, those efforts have come to a virtual standstill. No rescues have been reported since Wednesday.

Officials said Friday that the confirmed death toll in Sichuan County alone had risen to 55,239, an increase of nearly 14,000 in the past two days. Hundreds of people have also been confirmed dead in several provinces around Sichuan. The government put the overall number of dead and missing at more than 80,000. Tents are needed most in the disaster zone where the homeless number 5 million, the government said.

State television has sharply reduced live coverage from the disaster zone in Sichuan province. The clip of Premier Wen Jiabao declaring that the search for survivors would continue "as long as there's a glimmer of hope" - played endlessly in the first week - has also dropped from broadcasts.

Instead, on Thursday, Wen was shown delivering a different message on a brief visit to villages near Beichuan. "The motherland has not forgotten them. We have not forgotten them," Wen said of the dead, standing with a group of refugees. He urged the survivors to "turn grief into strength" and build a new hometown as an act of consolation.

In one quake-hit area, work had already turned to reconstruction. Rescue teams departed Dujiangyan, where workers were burying bodies and clearing rubble from collapsed buildings, said The Beijing Times, a state-run newspaper.

All that is left is to disinfect the place and then demolish it.

Li Zichuan
Chinese soldierThe streets of Beichuan - once crawling with military convoys, emergency workers, fleeing villagers and volunteers - were nearly deserted Thursday. Dogs and chickens roamed the area, which was silent except for the occasional distant roar of a car engine.

"The bodies of dead victims will decompose and there could be an epidemic outbreak, so our job right now is to prevent that," said Ma Changjia, a volunteer from the southern city of Shenzhen who had come to help with the cleanup.

As the afternoon sun grew stronger, exhausted workers sat under trees, some with their heads slumped between their knees. Plastic canisters and basins of disinfectant lined the sidewalk.

Health experts say corpses pose little direct threat of communicable diseases or contamination, although the misconception that they do is widespread.

"People are quite traumatized after an event like this and they know that there are bodies underneath the rubble," said Paul Garwood, spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva. "So the disinfection measures provide reassurance and support."

Some 400,000 tents have been delivered to quake victims, and thousands of prefabricated huts have been erected. Still, the need for more was urgent.

"We need more than 3.3 million tents," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters, renewing an international appeal.

To reinforce the point, President Hu Jintao visited two tent manufacturing companies, where he was shown on state TV urging workers to boost production to help their countrymen.

Also Thursday, the government warned of the risk of secondary disasters from blocked streams, earthquake-loosened soil, mudslides and the upcoming rainy season.

Debris from the earthquake had created blocked rivers and streams, creating 34 "barrier lakes" that could become unstable.

"The water level in some lakes is high and rising," he said. "If there's a break, it will cause severe damage," Yun Xiaosu, vice minister of land and resources, told reporters in Beijing. Yun said that people at risk had been evacuated.

Meanwhile, emergency crews in Pengzhou worked Friday to secure 15 sources of radiation buried in the rubble of China's devastating earthquake, the government said as it evacuated thousands of survivors downstream from rivers dammed by landslides.

Officials precariously balanced their efforts to clean up and rebuild with attempts to house, feed and treat the displaced and injured and search for survivors.

One senior official said China faces "a daunting challenge" to prevent environmental contamination from other sources.

There has been no leak of radioactive substances into the environment, Wu Xiaoqing, China's vice minister for environmental protection, told reporters in Beijing.

The Olympic torch resumed its relay through China following a three-day national mourning period for quake victims.

Hu chaired a meeting on the quake Thursday by China's highest governing body, where leaders vowed to continue the rescue effort "to the last village," according to a statement.

Officials say they plan to rebuild Beichuan in a new area. Provincial official Hou Xiongfei said no decision had yet been made on the location.

Many who returned to Beichuan for the first time since the quake stood in awe at the destruction.

"Look at that, just look at that," one man said to friend as they stood surveying the surreal skyline of crooked buildings and wiped-out roads.

© MMVIII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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