ZHOUQU, China (Reuters) - Wails of grief echoed through a Chinese town half buried by a landslide two days ago, as relatives washed the mud-covered bodies pulled from the ruins and desperately hunted for survivors.
Rescuers and locals, most with just shovels, hoes and rope to work with, on Monday spread out over more than 2 km of devastated land to burrow down into homes engulfed by a torrent of mud and floodwater sweeeping down from the slopes around Zhouqu late on Saturday night.
“There are around 20 of my family members under there,” said Zou Jianglian, who had rushed back from a job in nearby Wuwei town to search for her mother, father, younger brother and other relatives lost since the disaster.
The disaster in northwest China’s Gansu province killed at least 127 people — a toll expected to mount — making it the worst single incident in a year of serious flooding.
Nearly 1,500 people have already died in landslides and flooding caused by months of torrential rains across the country, the ministry of Civil Affairs said.
Relatives of the near 1,300 still missing in Zhouqu trekked into the disaster zone, some helping with excavation efforts while others watched in desperate hope.
Hopes rose when a 74-year-old woman was found alive on Monday morning, the official Xinhua agency reported. She had been trapped in a fourth floor apartment rather than the low-rise buildings almost obliterated by rocks and sludge.
In the worst hit-village not a single structure was intact, although rescuers said they had not given up hope.
“We’ve found signs of life in the rubble near a temple,” said Liu Junfeng, a senior military office organising rescue efforts. “It came from about two metres under the ruins.”
Engineers were also blasting a barrier of rocks and mud in an effort to drain an unstable lake upstream from the town of 40,000 residents, when landslides also choked up the Bailong River.
With more rains forecast for this week, there may be fresh disasters if the unsecured natural dam bursts, although thousands of people downstream have already been evacuated as a precaution.
The mass of mud and rocks buried at least 300 low-rise homes, state media reported, while images showed multi-storey concrete buildings toppled or with chunks gouged out.
Vital supplies are now running low, with food, water and tents stuck in vehicles several hundred metres from the site.
“Only hospitals and flood control headquarter have water and electricity right now. We really need water and food here,” said Cui Longbing, a 40-year-old resident who works with the Zhouqu Jinlong Construction Company.
Premier Wen Jiabao visited the disaster-hit town on Sunday, to survey the wreckage, promise government help, console survivors, and urge rescuers and engineers to work as hard as possible to save lives and prevent further tragedy.
China has deployed the resources of its powerful central government to battle a string of natural disasters in recent years — flooding, quakes and landslides — winning popular support for both the military and leadership.
Experts said the landslide, which carried mud and rubble over five kilometres (three miles), could have been caused by earth made vulnerable to heavy rain by a recent drought and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that may have loosened the mountainside.
Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Chris Buckley and Jonathan Thatcher