Zhouqu County, China (CNN) -- It was the first sign of life after hours of searching.
Teams of People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers frantically crowded around a hole they had dug through the mud into the second story of an apartment building. Someone was inside, alive.
Rescuers pulled 52-year-old Liu Ma Shendeng from the rubble. He had been trapped for 60 hours. His nephew said Liu was disabled and bedridden, but somehow survived. Medics examined him briskly then rushed him away for treatment.
But there was little celebration. Everywhere else was utter despair.
The landslide tore through Zhouqu County in the middle of the night, leaving behind mud and rock several stories high. Some buildings were flattened, including the police department and part of the primary school. Others simply toppled over. The rest were buried under sludge several meters deep.
"There was a noise like thunder and then it came down from the sky. There was no way to escape," said a woman who did not want to give her name.
"It sounded like a giant gust of wind," said a man who identified himself as Mr. Hong. He was looking for the remains of his family's home. "There was nothing I could do but run."
But an untold number could not. The death toll has risen to 702 with 1,042 people still missing.
The disaster zone is a flurry of activity, including thousands of soldiers, police, firefighters and medics. Sounds of heaving and digging are punctuated by painful cries, as survivors realize their loved ones are most likely gone.
Many townspeople lost not just one relative but their entire family. One woman was digging for a family of eight, including her sister. Two stories of their home were below mud. By the end of the third day there was still no sign of any of them.
Across town, husband and wife, Yang Renhai and Wang XuiQing stood on the mound of earth that smothered their two-story home. Their two young sons and parents were inside when the landslide happened.
"My sons are buried here," says Wang between sobs, "What is there to feel?"
The rescue operation has been painstakingly slow. Much of the town is covered in a thick layer of sludge. Heavy machinery sinks into it like quicksand, forcing rescuers to dig manually with picks, shovels and their bare hands. Even when rescue workers do find a body, it takes hours to pull it out.
On top of that, floodwaters cut through the town in every direction. The landslide happened after days of torrential rain. Some of the rocks and debris landed in the middle of the Bailong River which winds through the town. The water eventually overflowed, inundating low-lying neighborhoods. The government has been using explosives to break up the river debris, in an attempt to gradually release the water safely.
Back on land, the dead are wrapped in blankets and carried out on stretchers or planks of wood. Bodies line the streets and a makeshift morgue where family members come to identify the dead.
For the survivors, the future is empty and uncertain.
"Now I have to rely on the government," says a man who lost his home and several family members. "I don't even have a pair of chopsticks to eat with."