THE full horror of the devastating earthquake in China began to emerge yesterday as rescuers discovered whole towns all but wiped off the map, pushing the death toll beyond 20,000.
Military and police teams punched into the heart of the disaster zone, with 100 troops parachuting into a county that was previously cut off, while planes and helicopters dropped emergency supplies.
But the message from this mountainous corner of south-western Sichuan province was that town after town was flattened by Monday's 7.9-magnitude earthquake.
"The losses have been severe," said Wang Yi, who heads an armed police unit sent into the epicentre zone. "Some towns basically have no houses left. They have all been razed."
At least 7700 people died in the small town of Yingxiu alone. Only 2300 survived there.
Across Sichuan, countless thousands more people are missing or buried under the rubble of homes, schools and factories.
The Premier, Wen Jiabao, said 100,000 military personnel and police had been mobilised. "Time is life," he told rescuers.
Hundreds of survivors were pulled from rubble in Beichuan county yesterday, including five kindergarten children who were carried up the mountain road towards the city of Mianyang.
The road into Beichuan is blocked by boulders the size of houses and it takes would-be rescuers one hour to walk three kilometres.
Hardly a building remains untouched, and many have been buried beneath avalanches from the towering mountains on either side.
"Every hour we carry out between 10 and 20 people still alive," said Luan Dongmo, a police officer from Chongqing. "Of course I have let some tears fall."
Directly above the city an avalanche has sliced a third of the mountainside away.
On the edge of the city of Mianyang about 10,000 people roamed around a sports ground housing the homeless, holding cardboard signs with the names of relatives in hopes of information. Most were from Beichuan county, which is nearby.
Hu Luobing, from a village in the county, said everything had been destroyed there. "They have said nothing about what's going to happen to us," she said. "This is just a temporary place. I don't know when or if we'll be able to go home."
She was leaving her daughter in the shelter of the sports ground to look for clothes.
Others were seeking food and relief from the cold rain.
"I've had nothing to eat since last night," Bai Chenchu said. "I've only been given some bread and a bottle of water for my child."
Xi Dongli, 15, said: "I'm wearing everything I own."
Pictures from Beichuan show survivors lying alongside the dead in the open air, surrounded by buildings reduced to mangled slabs of concrete.
The county urgently needs 50,000 tents, 200,000 blankets and 300,000 coats, and drinking water and medicine.
State media reported devastation in villages near the epicentre, in Wenchuan, a county cut off by landslides. About 60,000 people were unaccounted for across the county.
The quake has caused severe cracks in the dam of the Zipingpu hydroelectric station and the plant and associated buildings have collapsed. Some have partly sunk.
Amid the overwhelming grief, there were moments of relief. In Mianzhu, Sichuan, about 500 people were pulled alive from crushed buildings.
A three-year-old girl was rescued yesterday after spending more than 40 hours under the rubble of a collapsed building in what state media called a "magical" survival tale. She apparently survived because she had been protected by the bodies of her parents, who died.
The girl, Song Xinyi, had bad leg injuries but was able to talk. "She explained the three Chinese characters that made up her name and told everybody she loved painting and watching TV," the official news agency Xinhua said.
The rescue effort has been disrupted since Monday by heavy rain, and the Meteorological Authority forecast more rain this week, raising the risk of fresh landslides.
The earthquake has muffled government propaganda three months before the Olympic Games in Beijing.
It has also overshadowed criticism from abroad about recent unrest in Tibet, with images of the tragedy and rescue efforts spurring offers of aid and an outpouring of sympathy.
China said it was grateful for offers of help from the US, European Union, United Nations and International Olympic Committee but said the time was "not yet ripe" to allow in foreign rescue teams, citing damaged transport links.
Agence France-Presse, Reuters
IT'S nearly a year since the mountains on each side of Beichuan sheared in half, spilling like a sandcastle over the southern corner of the town and pounding the northern streets with boulders. In a few short minutes, the town of 20,000 people was battered to a tangled mess of apartment block detritus, flattened buses and bodies squashed like insects.
The thousand voices that once pleaded for help from within twisted buildings have long since fallen silent. At least half of the population is dead. But this mass graveyard has been cleansed and the primordial scale of this catastrophe is clearer.
The more elevated roads have been cleared by bulldozers, while the mangled lower streets have been blanketed with metres of dirt after torrential rains. Glacial rivers of mud and rock are swallowing the city— from the ground up, as if completing the burial the earthquake had begun.
During every birthday, festival and anniversary, a humble and quietly spoken man called Zheng Rentian pays his respects by driving his little van to the hillside that buried his father and 10 relatives who were dining together when the quake hit. He burns candles, incense and paper money in their honour and lights strings of firecrackers to ward off mischievous spirits.
Zheng, pronounced "Tsen" in this corner of Sichuan province, slows his van as he passes Beichuan Middle School. Zheng's nephew had shot out the door to safety when he felt the first pieces of ceiling strike his skin.
Parents of the 600 students who were killed say the building was yet another shoddy school made of "tofu" cement and steel. The school is the only building in the area that has its own security fence; it was erected last year to prevent any repeat of the "incident" in which grieving parents gathered and posted noticeboard photos of their missing sons.
Zheng eases his van past a long line of vendors selling earthquake tourist memorabilia. He gets out, flashes his residence card at a new gate and security fence decked with razor wire, and descends by foot to the main Beichuan town below.
The Beichuan of Zheng's memory is a mangled collage of miracles, resilience and wretched misery.
Both of Zheng's parents were out of the house at 2.28pm on Monday, May 12, 2008, when their village disappeared. Zheng stops to show us the missing mountainside, and debates with a bystander about where the village used to be.
"My mother was one step away from a falling rock that would have killed her," he says. "My father was in a restaurant below — underneath where that tree is sticking out. My eleven relatives at that table and a thousand other people would still be here today if that mountain had not collapsed on them."
For the Chinese Communist Party, the Sichuan earthquake that left 70,000 people dead and 18,000 missing was a chance to show how it had evolved from its cruel and callous past. On May 14 last year, at the top of the descent into Beichuan town, Age sources watched a megaphone-wielding Premier Wen Jiabao providing a style of responsive and humane leadership that Chinese people may have never known before. Today, residents spontaneously thank the central Government for its help and say how leaders have not forgotten them.
The Government has channelled vast resources into reconstruction. Obliterated mountain roads have been re-laid. Damaged dams have been reinforced. Adequate temporary housing has been provided. Peasants in remote corners of the county are busily rebuilding. There are no signs that earthquake victims lack for food or shelter. The local economy appears to be booming.
But the earthquake has also revealed how far China is from the nation it wants to be. On May 14 and 15, The Age watched People's Liberation Army soldiers loitering aimlessly and helping themselves to goods looted from shattered shops, while the cries of trapped citizens rang out from buildings nearby. (??? Note 1: This report is on the 9 May 2009, therefore, the date May 14 and 15 is referring to the event in 2008 )
Of the tens of thousands of soldiers in Beichuan in the days after the quake, the only ones we saw raise a sweat were a dozen who jostled in front of Premier Wen as they rushed to an imaginary rescue for the benefit of the China Central Television camera. (??? Note 2: click here to view the photo on the Sydney Morning Herald a year ago showing People Liberation Army rescue a child from the rubble, also read the report highlighted in red colour at Attachment A to compare the contradictory statements made by John Garnaut’s a year apart)
All of the rescues we witnessed were by local volunteers or orange-suited firefighters from far corners of the country. Thousands died who should have been saved. And yet CCTV has played endless slow-motion footage of heroic soldiers at the service of the common people. For many in the Communist Party, the tragedy was primarily a propaganda opportunity. (??? Note 3: please compare this statement to the one in Attachment A)
At times of stress, the party's overriding instinct is to protect itself. The state revealed deeply rooted callousness and insecurity as it treated grieving parents as national security threats to be bought, intimidated and silenced, while airbrushing discussion from local websites and media.
Shoddy schools are the most visible public grievance but not the only one. In Beichuan county, the Government has appropriated land to make it easier to rebuild from scratch. But residents are refusing to sign compensation agreements because they have watched work-team and village leaders siphon funds and trade favours with other rich and powerful residents. Animosity is channelled to local officials, but it is Beijing that has chosen to preserve China's vast pyramid of unchecked administrative power.
Reconstruction is proceeding at impressive speed, but officials can't seem to shake their instincts for pantomime and deception.
Five weeks ago, locals heard that Premier Wen Jiabao was likely to return for Tuesday's anniversary. Thousands of workers were immediately enlisted to widen and beautify the highway from Mianyang Airport. The roadside is being lined with instant grass and potted with fully grown trees, while workers add final touches of paint to the road-facing walls of newly built homes.
Neat "model" villages, designed in the local Qiang ethnic style, dot the flat land that can be easily seen from the tinted windows of a passing cavalcade.
Beichuan remains unoccupied as officials debate whether to turn it into a museum. Inside the gates, Zheng Rentian guides us through the town that he remembers.
On the right, utterly obscured by a rock-slide, was the car wash where Zheng used to clean his van. All of the workers ran out to open ground when they heard the mountain crumbling above them and none of them was killed.
On the left, through an ornamental Chinese gate, was the bus depot and vegetable market. We overhear a mother telling her young daughter how a crowd had rushed out only be obliterated by boulders hurtling from the other direction.
"When I arrived, at 4pm on May 12, I saw about 100 corpses lying here, with their skulls smashed and limbs severed by falling boulders," Zheng says.
One survivor was Zheng's niece, Zheng Juhong, who had been trapped inside her mobile phone stall. She knew no one would come that evening.
"I just hugged myself tightly against the aftershocks and cried out for my mother a few times," she says.
In the morning, she heard people outside rescue someone else in the building next to her. But they could not hear her cries. Later, two soldiers heard her and pushed through a piece of pipe to provide fresh drinking water. She pleaded with them not to go. But they explained: "Without orders from above we cannot start that kind of rescue."
Later two volunteers came, one of whom she recognised, and they worked for eight hours with two firefighters, without a break, until they hauled her out late on Wednesday night.
At the centre of town we pass the other campus of Beichuan Middle School, where officials sent their children. The school was obliterated by a rock-slide and 1000 children lost their lives.
Workers are now focusing their efforts on building a memorial ground, erecting huge political banners and steel support frames for tilted buildings, which will soon provide a moving backdrop for when visiting leaders front the cameras on Tuesday.
Zheng Rentian points out the crushed bakery shop where his ever-smiling sister used to work. He had assumed she had been killed. But his sister, Zheng Xiaobi, had in fact being delivering bread to a nearby town and had miraculously survived.
"I was hurrying back across the river on my motorbike when the bridge started wavering so hard I could hardly balance," she says. "A crack opened up in front of me and I accelerated to try and get across. Two old people were walking the other way towards me. I could see their faces as they screamed and I felt myself falling."
She doesn't know how she survived the 20-metre fall with a collapsing bridge, without a helmet. When she regained consciousness she heard the old man grieving for his friend. She tried to help but her ribs were broken and she couldn't move.
Zheng Xiaobi now works at a new bakery in nearby Anchang town. It was her son (Zheng Rentian's nephew) who had survived the school collapse above the town. He lost 50 of 70 classmates. Whenever he feels a tremor, he runs outside, and often he refuses to sleep indoors.
Zheng Xiaobi has come to see herself as lucky. "I was someone who loved to laugh and smile," she says. "I lost my smile for half a year, but now I'm coming back to normal."
John Garnaut is China correspondent.