“We have entered the most crucial stage and must ensure the final victory of our rescue operations,” said the Chinese president today on arriving at the center of the earthquake zone in Sichuan.
Nonetheless he demanded rescuers redouble their efforts as he met his prime minister, who has been on the scene since Monday directing the disaster relief operations.
Despite declining hopes of finding many survivors, President Hu Jintao said saving lives remained the top priority, but that helping the injured and restoring shattered infrastructure needed to be speeded up.
As the evidence floods in it is clear this is the worst earthquake since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949.
Now, there are growing suspicions some of the death toll could have been avoided, with the launch of an official inquiry into just why so many schools and colleges seem to have collapsed with ease while neighbouring buildings resisted.
If cost-cutting and poor construction is to blame the authorities promise the severest of penalties for those concerned.
The numbers are mind-boggling: 216,000 structures have been destroyed in Sichuan, including nearly 7,000 school buildings. It’s feared more than 50,000 people could have died, and another 25,000 may still be buried in the rubble.
A hundred and thirty thousand troops are now involved in the rescue operation. The Chinese have asked the US for satellite pictures, as the full extent of the devastation is still unknown.