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Rescue a bright spot as 700-plus die in China mudslides

From Emily Chang, CNN
  • Soldiers rescued a man trapped for 60 hours under the mud
  • Thousands of rescue teams were searching for more than 1,000 people still missing
  • The mudslides were triggered by heavy rains that have tormented China all summer

Zhouqu County, China (CNN) -- Chinese soldiers frantically dug through the mud with shovels, even with their bare hands, Tuesday to reach the second story of an apartment building in northwestern Zhouqu County. After 60 hours trapped under mud, Liu Ma Shendeng was alive.

The soldiers pulled out the 52-year-old man, a rare moment of joy in a search for survivors in which hope was fast diminishing.

The death toll doubled Tuesday to 702 people in massive mudslides triggered Sunday by rain in China's Gansu province, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Another 1,042 people are still missing.

The side of a mountain broke off in the darkness of night and tore through remote Zhouqu, burying many homes and ripping others apart. The path of the mudslide is now covered in three and four stories of rock and mud.

Video: Parents look for children in landslide
Video: View of landslide damage
Video: Rescuers scour China mudslides
Video: Man pulled from rubble amid despair
Affected area

Some buildings, including the police department and a primary school, were flattened by the wall of mud. Others toppled over or vanished completely, buried under sludge many feet deep.

"There was a noise like thunder and then it came down from the sky," said one woman, who did not want to be identified. "There was no way to escape."

Liu was bedridden and too weak to talk. But he represented a miracle in this place of utter devastation.

Thousands of soldiers, policemen, firefighters and medics worked to search for survivors, the sounds of heaving and digging punctuated by the mournful cries of those who realized they have lost their loved ones. In some cases, entire families were buried alive.

"My sons are buried here," said Wang XuiQing, who stood with his wife, Yang Renhai, on a mound of earth that smothered their two-story home. The couple's parents were inside along with their two sons.

"What is there to feel?" Wang said sobbing.

Chen Jianhua, an official in Zhouqu, said 218 injured people had been treated at local hospitals, and 41 severely injured survivors had been transferred for treatment in the provincial capital of Lanzhou, according to Xinhua.

China's rainy season started with a vengeance in early May and has brought the worst flooding in a decade. And more rain is forecast in the next few days.

Some of the rocks and debris from the mudslide landed in the middle of the Bailong River that snakes through the area. The river overflowed and inundated low-lying neighborhoods.

The government has been using explosives to break up the river debris, in an attempt to gradually release the water safely.

On land, the dead were wrapped in blankets and carried out on stretchers or planks of wood. Bodies lined the streets and a makeshift morgue where family members came to identify the dead.

Even for those who survived the mud, the future looks empty and uncertain.

"Now I have to rely on the government," said a man who lost his home and several relatives. "I don't even have a pair of chopsticks to eat with."

In Washington, China's disaster elicited sympathy from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The United States is providing support for the ongoing relief efforts through assistance to the Red Cross Society of China," she said in a statement. "To those affected by this tragedy and to all the people of China, we send our heartfelt condolences."