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China stands still to mourn quake victims

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DESSIANING ARIYANTI
May 19, 2008
— China stood still and sirens wailed Monday to mourn the country's tens of thousands of earthquake victims, as the search for survivors increasingly became a search for bodies.

Construction workers, shopkeepers and bureaucrats across the bustling nation of 1.3 billion people paused for three minutes at 2:28 p.m. exactly one week after the magnitude 7.9 quake hit central China. Air-raid sirens and the horns of cars and buses sounded in memory of the estimated 50,000 dead.


The confirmed death toll from the May 12 quake rose to 34,073, the State Council, China's Cabinet, said Monday. Quake-related losses to companies totaled $9.5 billion, Deputy Industry Minister Xi Guohua said Monday.


The military was still struggling to reach areas cut off by the earthquake, with more than 10,000 discovered stranded in Yinxiui valley near the epicenter, China National Radio said Monday. There was no information on casualties there, and 600 soldiers were hiking into the area.


In an indication of the challenge in dealing with millions of homeless and injured survivors, China said it would accept foreign medical teams and issued an international appeal for tents.


"China requests the international community donate tents as a priority when they donate materials because many houses were toppled in the quake and because it is the rainy season," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement, also thanking the international community for its help so far.


In the disaster area, more than 200 relief workers were reported buried over the past three days by mudslides while working to repair roads in Sichuan, Xinhua reported.


An official confirmed mudslides had caused some deaths but gave no details. "The total death toll is still being counted," said the official at the Sichuan provincial Communications Department who only gave his last name, Shi.


Fourteen Taiwanese escaped a massive landslide in Sichuan. They were located by authorities using satellite positioning data from the group's tour bus on Friday, Chinese authorities said, and were set to head home Monday.


During three days of national mourning ordered by the government, flags were to fly at half-staff and public entertainment was canceled an unprecedented outpouring of state sympathy on a level normally reserved for dead leaders.


Rescuers also briefly halted work in the disaster zone, where the hunt for survivors turned glum despite remarkable survival tales among thousands buried. Two women were rescued Monday after being trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building at a coal mine in Sichuan, Xinhua reported.


A convoy of police cars, ambulances and other rescue vehicles let off a long blast from their horns as the workers in orange jumpsuits stood quietly with eyes downcast, some removing their white hardhats.


"Our hearts are so heavy, so many of our compatriots are dead," said rescuer Ma Tang Chuan. "As long as we try out best, we have some small hope."


In Beijing's Tiananmen Square, thousands of people bowed their heads and then began shouting "Long Live China!" and thrusting their fists in the air. Traffic on the capital's highways and roads stopped. Some drivers got out of their cars while others blared their horns.


Volunteers at Wangfujing shopping street handed out white ribbons reading, "lovingly remember," before hundreds of shopkeepers spilled into the street. The period of silence started early and ended up stretching past the three-minute mark, before it was broken by a burst of sound from a construction site next door.


"It's the first time we've stopped," said Bai Zhenzong, a worker at the site. "This is awful. This shows how importantly the Chinese government is treating this."


Chinese President Hu Jintao and other top Communist Party leaders were shown on state TV bowing their heads, white flowers pinned to the lapels of their dark suits. Hu had spent three days touring the worst-hit areas of Sichuan.


The moment of tribute was also marked in Hong Kong, where double-decker buses sounded their horns. Rides and performances were halted for three minutes at Hong Kong Disneyland, and the daily fireworks show was canceled.


The government order for the mourning period said all Internet entertainment and game sites had to be taken off-line and users redirected to sites dedicated to commemorating earthquake victims, the Chinese news Web portal sina.com said.


China's National Grand Theater will cancel or postpone all performances during the three days, and media reports said numerous bars, nightclubs, karaoke parlors and movie theaters had shut down beginning at midnight in major cities such as Beijing, Shenyang and Changsha.


Newspapers across China printed their logos in black and some ran entirely without color. Several front pages were covered in black, with simple messages in white text across the middle, "The nation mourns," ''Pray for life," and "National tragedy."


The mourning period begins as hope of finding more trapped survivors dwindled, and preventing hunger and disease among the homeless became more pressing.


Hu Yongcui, 38, said she did not care about the official show of mourning as she headed to Beichuan, near the quake's epicenter, to search for her missing 17-year-old daughter.


"I can't feel anything. I have no words," she said. "I just want to go home. I just want to find my daughter."


In a sign the search for survivors was concluding, Japan said it was considering withdrawing rescue crews to be replaced with an expanded medical team to treat survivors because of declining opportunities to use their technology to hunt for trapped victims.


"It's been a week since the earthquake and at this point chances we can make use of our technology is very limited. It's time to think about what to do with our rescue operation," Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters, according to Japan's Kyodo News agency.


"There is definitely a need for medical experts, and we can dispatch a team whenever there is a request," he said.


In Dujiangyan, three local government officials were removed from their posts for dereliction of duty over the earthquake the first officials punished, Xinhua reported. One of the officials was reprimanded for miscounting casualty figures, while the others were punished for failing to come to work.


The Communist Party's discipline committee had instructed all officials to "stand at the front line" of the disaster and vowed to deal harshly with those who did not, the agency said.



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