Under the Sichuan rubble, a heartbeat summons rescuers

BEICHUAN, China — Under a maze of rubble and collapsed concrete, relief workers registered a faint heartbeat Monday on a sophisticated detector. It set off a daylong frenzy of rescue efforts.

No one even knew the name of the man with the telltale heart.

But by late morning, more than 100 relief workers with bolt cutters, portable jacks, pneumatic drills and state-of-the-art devices to explore for buried signs of life were massed at the site, scrambling to bring the buried man out of a dark, dangerous hole.

There still was no rescue by the time sirens and horns sounded across the nation at 2:28 p.m., beginning three minutes of national mourning for the tens of thousands of victims of last week's 7.9-magnitude earthquake. Across the nation, virtually all traffic stopped and people stood up at their workplaces and in plazas in an emotional silent tribute.

Here in this mountain city, some workers stopped their toil briefly while others kept up with the task of trying to pull the victim out.

The faint heartbeat was a counterpoint to whirring helicopters overhead and bustling relief efforts elsewhere in the debris-strewn city, including the successful rescue of a 61-year-old woman, Li Mingcui, who was pulled from a collapsed bazaar at 10:42 a.m. local time — 164 hours after the mammoth May 12 earthquake ravaged this corner of Sichuan province.

"She was conscious. She was only slightly injured," said an ambulance attendant, who gave only his surname as Ruan.

Such rescues are increasingly uncommon. If quake victims survive under the rubble for a week, they can die soon afterward. That happened to a 53-year-old woman who was pulled from debris in Hanwang in late morning, but she stopped breathing by the time she was taken to an emergency treatment center, the state Xinhua news agency said.

The death toll stood at 34,073 Monday, although it is expected to hit 50,000. The number of injured is 245,108 people, according to the State Council.

This once-thriving city is now a tableau of ruin, without a single inhabitable building, many of which tilt at odd angles, missing walls. Cars and buses lie upside down, with boulders resting atop.

By late morning, relief workers had pulled scores more corpses from the city's rubble. Heavy machinery worked at clearing roads, and workers sprayed disinfectant on debris thick with the stench of decay. Everyone wore required protective surgical masks.

A crowd congregated at what once was a six-story apartment block, where word filtered out of a new rescue under way.

"Two sniffer dogs have reacted," said Xu Xiangqian, a relief volunteer. "We're using a pulse detector. ... Some villagers have come to call out to the person."

By early afternoon, some 150 people had gathered around the site, including ambulance attendants, relief workers in orange jumpsuits and white helmets, and rescue teams with specialized equipment, as well as journalists and television crews.

"There's only a (trapped) sofa between the man and our rescuers," Qin Guoxin, vice director of the Guizhou firefighter corps, told reporters an hour later. "There are two rescuers down there."

He signaled to a hole leading some 12 feet below the rubble mound.

"I feel very excited. We will try our best to save him," Qin added.

Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, making a surprise visit to Beichuan, arrived to tell rescuers: "Don't even stop for one moment."

He was referring to the scheduled three-minute mourning period, which is part of three days of "national grief." Until Wednesday at midnight, the national flag will fly at half-staff, and all entertainment activities in China were ordered to cease.

Movie theaters and karaoke bars were ordered shut. To comply with the spirit of the period, major Web sites removed advertising and all state newspapers printed their front pages in black, with white lettering.

Teachers told school children to behave solemnly.

State television showed images of Chinese crying in public squares.

In Beichuan, surrounded by cliffs, a blistering sun baked the rescue scene. By mid-afternoon, another rescuer said the effort was more arduous than anticipated.

"Saving people in the debris is very difficult," said Xia Pingcheng, vice director of the Kunming Seismological Bureau, who was helping with local relief.

At one point, an ambulance backed up to the site and soldiers formed a protective gauntlet for a gurney to pass through. But no survivor was pulled from the rubble.

As the sun descended toward the western hills, a senior official from the Ministry of Public Security, who identified himself only by the surname Liu, said rescuers would keep toiling to "save every life that can be saved."

But he said the man trapped below showed only "very, very weak signs of life."

Work continued at the scene as dusk fell.


See a video of a Chinese rescue worker using a handheld heartbeat detector.

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