China was bracing for huge numbers of earthquake fatalities as President Hu Jintao visited victims and stressed that saving lives was "still the top priority" four days after the massive quake struck the country's southwest.
The death toll from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan Province rose to 22,069 nationwide as of 2 p.m. Friday, while the rescue headquarters feared the ultimate figure might top 50,000.
More than four days after Monday's powerful quake, Hu on Friday joined Premier Wen Jiabao, who has been heading a State Council headquarters for disaster relief in Sichuan Province.
Both leaders vowed to continue efforts in quake rescue and relief and giving top priority to saving lives. The solemn-looking leaders repeatedly shouted the words "all-out efforts" in saving lives, treating the wounded and helping the victims.
"Although the time for the best chance of rescue, the first 72 hours after an earthquake, has passed, saving lives remains the top priority of our work," Hu told distraught survivors, who were still searching for relatives.
An estimated 14,000 people were still buried under debris.
"Quake relief work has entered the most crucial phase. We must make every effort, race against time and overcome all difficulties to achieve the final victory of the relief efforts," Hu said.
Both Hu and Wen said utmost efforts must be made even if there still exists the faintest hope of finding more survivors.
PROGRESS IN RELIEF
Both leaders said the rescue and relief work had been progressing in an "orderly, forceful and effective" manner.
By Friday, rescuers had reached all the isolated mountain counties and townships near the epicenter, and rescuers from the military and armed police forces exceeded 100,000.
On Thursday alone, 10,503 people were rescued and 13,436 injured were treated.
Telecommunications networks are being restored, with the eight worst-hit counties linked to outside world through fixed line and mobile phones.
International rescue teams from Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Taiwan had reached or were on their way to quake-hit Sichuan to help with the relief efforts.
A total of 181,460 tents, 170,000 quilted clothes and 220,000 quilts had been allocated by the Ministry of Civil Affairs for victims.
The ministry said 3.175 billion yuan (454 million U.S. dollars) in cash and goods had been received from home and abroad by Friday afternoon.
The ministry is planning to arrange adoptions of quake orphans, as the number of homeless children climbs. Orphans are currently cared for by local governments.
Stories of apparently miraculous survivals continue to give hope.
Eighty hours after the quake, one student was rescued from the debris in Beichuan Middle School; almost 97 hours after the quake, businessman Feng Shaorong was pulled out.
As of 4:30 p.m. Friday, 17 people had been rescued from ruins in the county seat of Beichuan, one of the worst-hit regions, the Beichuan quake relief headquarters said.
Rescuers on the site said they could still hear weak calls for help from under collapsed buildings, and are expecting more miracles.
PRESIDENT CONSOLING VICTIMS
On Friday afternoon, Hu visited quake-battered Beichuan county, where he encouraged victims to be strong and confident in overcoming hardships caused by the disaster.
In a tent in Leigu Town of Beichuan, where more than 1,000 of the 18,000 population were dead or missing, he told victims, "We know you've suffered. The quake destroyed your house and injured members of your family. We feel your anguish."
In the Beichuan Middle School, where all the teaching buildings collapsed in the quake and 300 teachers and students were still buried in the ruins, Hu said, "Saving lives is still an urgent task. We should rescue them by every possible means as long as there is a glimmer of hope."
Hu also praised the troops conducting rescue work in the Beichuan Middle School, saying, "You have given hope, confidence and strength to the quake-affected people."
Hu said the rescue work has entered a crucial stage. "You should be unafraid of fatigue and work around the clock, making great efforts to keep losses to a minimum."
In a field clinic in the middle school, he kissed the face of Luo Mengxi, a three-and-half year old girl who lost her mother in the quake.
He went back to Beichuan county seat and visited the Nanhe Sports Center, where more than 10,000 people were accommodated. Hethanked the volunteers for their contribution to the rescue work.
He also visited the Mianyang City Central Hospital, telling the medics to make every effort to treat the injured.
The Sichuan quake was "the biggest and most destructive" since New China was founded in 1949, and the quick response had helped reduce casualties, Premier Wen said in an interview with Chinese media.
(Xinhua News Agency May 16, 2008)