YUSHU, China – The death toll from a strong earthquake in China's remote and mountainous Tibetan plateau has climbed to 617, even as convoys of trucks carried in supplies and tents on Thursday for survivors braving the cold.
As darkness fell, freezing temperatures left little hope for anyone still trapped under the rubble of homes, schools and monasteries in Gyegu, known in Chinese as Jiegu, the ruined seat of Yushu county, which bore the brunt of the quake.
Tents have sprung up around a statue of a warrior on a horse in windswept Gyegu, where most of the region's 100,000 people live. Monks dug at the rubble with shovels as soldiers handed out rice and gruel to shaken and hungry survivors.
When police handed out sachets of instant noodles at one tent camp, locals rushed with outstretched hands to grab the bags.
"What we urgently need are tents, quilts, cotton-padded clothing and instant food," Zuo Ming, disaster relief director from the Civil Affairs Ministry, told reporters in Beijing. Tent supplies had been allocated but not yet fully shipped, he added.
"The main problem now is lack of transportation, and it will take time for them to arrive at the staging area."
In Yushu, the sports stadium is now a makeshift hospital, but inadequate for the number of injured people. Dozens of injured and distraught Tibetans lay on the ground outside, their broken limbs crudely splinted with wooden lathes.
The magnitude-6.9 quake was centered in the mountains that divide southwestern Qinghai province from the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Tibetan plateau is regularly shaken by quakes, though casualties are usually minimal because so few people live there.
Nearly 10,000 people have been injured in the latest quake, almost 1,000 of them severely, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing a spokesman with the rescue headquarters in the ethnically Tibetan town. Hundreds are still unaccounted for.
Buses carrying rescue workers and army trucks filled with food and medicine rumbled all night through sleet, sandstorms and fierce icy winds along the 1,000 km-long (620-mile) highway separating Yushu from the Qinghai provincial capital, Xining.
Tibetan Buddhist monks have turned out in force to help rescue efforts, although the town's main Buddhist monastery lay in ruins on a nearby hillside.
"We were the first to help when the earthquake came. We monks are here to help the people just as much as the government," said one monk, digging through rubble in the main square.
Tibetan Buddhists have often been at odds with China's ruling Communist Party, which is wary of the ties between the monasteries and Tibetan exiles. That tension could complicate rescue efforts by non-government organizations, some worry.
"They say the army is helping us here but look, it's all up to us," said Tashi, a volunteer outside the stadium who said he was trying to transfer patients to outside hospitals.
MEMORIES OF SICHUAN
For many Chinese, images from Yushu recall the devastating May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, which killed 80,000.
Volunteers and donors traded information via Twitter, while Tibetans and Chinese held an impromptu fund-raiser in Beijing.
In the Sichuan quake, the widespread collapse of school buildings when many other surrounding buildings remained standing, caused anger and accusations of corruption.
In the Yushu quake, 66 students and 10 teachers were confirmed dead at three schools, including a collapsed vocational school, Xinhua said.
Experience from that rescue effort was evident in the speedy deployment of material after the quake.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have called for all-out efforts in rescue attempts, and sent Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu to Qinghai to oversee relief work.
Many locals said they were happy to see help arrive so quickly, but they also worried that their area's isolation means reconstruction will take a long time.
Survivors slept beneath quilts scavenged from beneath the cinderblocks and bricks of their former homes, or set up tents on a flat area just outside town.
China declined an offer of help from Japan, that government's spokesman said. China had enough relief supplies, so outside aid was not needed, Zuo said.
Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who was born in Qinghai, said in a statement he was praying for the victims.
"It is my hope that all possible assistance and relief work will reach these people. I am also exploring how I, too, can contribute to these efforts," said the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who Beijing accuses of promoting Tibetan independence but who says he simply wants meaningful autonomy for his homeland.
Traditional Tibetan homes perched on the slopes above town suffered some of the worst destruction. Although many new buildings were intact, the brick and mud homes crumpled, apparently killing many inside.
"Some homes just weren't built properly and collapsed," said Xinzha, a Tibetan woman helping neighbors sort through the ruins of their home, in which three people had died. "If families have enough money they can build nice, strong homes."
Cracks appeared in a dam near the town of Gyegu, Xinhua has said, adding that repair workers were trying to stabilize the structure and prevent it from bursting and flooding the town.
"I'm very scared that it will come back again," local resident Daer Zhuoma said. "When it happened, I was barely able to escape, and every time there's another jolt I feel scared."