JIEGU, China – Tibetan monks prayed over hundreds of bodies Friday at a makeshift morgue next to their monastery after powerful earthquakes destroyed the remote mountain town of Jiegu in western China and left at least 791 people dead.
The official toll was likely to climb further. Gerlai Tenzing, a red-robed monk from the Jiegu Monastery, estimated that about 1,000 bodies had been brought to a hillside clearing in the shadow of the monastery. He said a precise count was difficult because bodies continued to trickle in and some had already been taken away by family members.
Dozens of monks began singing chants, or sutras, late in the afternoon and planned to begin cremating the unclaimed bodies Saturday. Genqiu, a 22-year-old monk, said it was impossible to perform traditional sky burials for all. Tibetan sky burials involve chopping a body into pieces and leaving it on a platform to be devoured by vultures.
"The vultures can't eat them all," said Genqiu, who like many Tibetans goes by one name.
Relief workers estimate that 70 percent to 90 percent of the town's wood-and-mud houses collapsed when the earthquakes hit Yushu county Wednesday morning.
China Central Television reported that a 13-year-old Tibetan girl was pulled from the toppled two-story Minzu Hotel on Friday after a sniffer dog alerted rescuers to her location. The girl, identified as Changli Maomu, was freed after a crane lifted a large concrete block out of the rubble, it said. Her condition was good and she was taken to a medical station for treatment, it said.
The official Xinhua News Agency said a 43-year-old Tibetan woman, Jang La, was also rescued after being trapped for 50 hours with no food or water.
"I thought no one would manage to save us and I lost hope, but as I yelled and yelled for help, they came and rescued us," Xinhua quoted her as saying. The woman's hips were crushed but she was stable, it said.
Xinhua reported Friday afternoon the confirmed death toll had risen to 791, with 294 missing. The report said 11,477 people were injured, 1,174 severely. The strongest of the quakes Wednesday was measured at magnitude 6.9 by the U.S. Geological Survey and 7.1 by China's earthquake administration.
Many survivors shivered through a second night outdoors as they waited for tents to arrive. Hundreds gathered on a plaza around a 50-foot (15-meter) tall statue of the mythical Tibetan King Gesar, wrapped in blankets taken from shattered homes.
Police had to intervene Friday to prevent young men from grabbing tents out of the back of a truck.
"I saw trucks almost attacked by local people because of the lack of food and shelter," said Pierre Deve, a program director at the Yushu-based community development organization Snowland Service Group. "It started yesterday, but you still see some things like this today. It's getting better. Chinese authorities are doing well."
Nonetheless, Deve said his group, which plans to distribute food, medicine, tents, clothes and bedding, was moving out of Jiegu in case things got worse.
"We want to have a place out of the city where we can communicate in a good way, protect the things we need to give to people who need them," he said.
China Central Television reported that about 40,000 tents would be in place by Saturday, enough to accommodate all survivors. Also on the way was more equipment to help probe for signs of life under the debris, it said. The tools include small cameras and microphones attached to poles that can be snaked into crevices as well as heat and motion sensors.
At one collapsed building where people were believed trapped, about 70 civilians, including three dozen Tibetan monks in crimson robes, joined rescue workers.
"One, two, three," the monks chanted as they used wooden beams to try to push away a section of collapsed wall. They later tied ropes to a slab of concrete and dragged it away.
The effort was hampered by the area's altitude, about 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), and Xinhua reported two dozen trained rescuers had to stop working because of altitude sickness. Sniffer dogs were also affected, it said.
Xinhua quoted a local education official as saying 66 children and 10 teachers had died, mostly in three schools, but more remained missing.
Thousands of students died during a massive Sichuan quake in 2008 when their poorly built schools collapsed. But unlike in Sichuan — where schools toppled as other buildings stood — nearly everything fell over in Yushu.
To underline official concern for a Tibetan area that saw anti-government protests two years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Yushu county Thursday evening to meet survivors. President Hu Jintao, in Brazil after visiting Washington, canceled scheduled stops in Venezuela and Peru to come home.
Wen, the sympathetic, grandfatherly face of the usually distant Chinese leadership, sought to provide comfort and build trust with the mostly Tibetan victims of the quake.
"The disaster you suffered is our disaster. Your suffering is our suffering. Your loss of loved ones is our loss. We mourn as you do. It breaks our hearts," Wen said in remarks repeatedly broadcast on state TV.
Wen also repeated nearly word for word the promise he made during the Sichuan earthquake: "As long as there's a glimmer of hope, we will spare no effort and never give up."