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Landslide rescuers make big push as 'golden' survival period closes

By Zhang Zhihao | China Daily | Updated: 2017-06-27 06:54

Rescuers use camera probes to check for signs of life on Monday in Xinmo village, Sichuan province.[Photo by Feng Yongbin/China Daily]

With the clock ticking, rescuers hoping for a miracle made a big push in their search for signs of life on Monday at the massive landslide that destroyed the village of Xinmo in Sichuan province.

It was the last day of the three-day "golden rescue period", during which experts say it is theoretically possible to still find survivors of the disaster.

As of late Monday, there had been no change in the numbers: Ten bodies had been recovered but 93 people were still missing. Only three people were known to have survived.

"This is a race against time and everyone has to give their all," said Guo Yang, 30, the vice-commander of the fire department's rescue team from Suining, also in Sichuan.

However, the rescue efforts, aided by sniffer dogs, camera probes and survey drones, were interrupted for a time after an alarm indicated the danger of an additional landslide.

The government has carried out extensive surveys throughout the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture to detect possible geological dangers, Xu Zhiwen, deputy chief of the prefecture government, said on Monday afternoon. It will do whatever is necessary to protect the safety of the people, Xu said.

Two rescue dogs from the Suining fire department had run along the riverbank since morning, searching for the scent of survivors.

Guo, the dogs' trainer, said that on Sunday afternoon, his sound-detection equipment and the dogs picked up two extremely weak indications of possible signs of life at the northern edge of the landslide. But when a rescue team rushed to the area, the signs were gone.

"It is devastating to see life vanishing before your own eyes," Guos aid. "We know the chance of finding survivors is very slim, but I still hope for a miracle. Whether it is a body or a survivor, I just want to find something that can put the worries of the family members to rest."

At 5:38 am on Saturday, 18 million cubic meters of rock, earth and water from heavy rains slid from the top of Fugui Mountain, covering Xinmo and burying 62 homes.

In the middle of the excavation site, two armed police officers were probing cracks in the rubble on Monday with snake-eye detectors-long, flexible cameras that can find vital signs 15 meters underground-said Jiang Haonan, the 30-year-old commander of a 16-member special search team from Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

With radar and the cameras, the group began searching on Sunday evening after traveling over 1,200 kilometers to reach the site.

"The situation here is dire. The debris is heavy, with little breathing room, but we will still spare no effort," he said.

Three scientists from the Sichuan Institute of Nuclear Geology were flying a scientific survey drone, which has collected more than 50 gigabytes of data since Saturday, including maps and 3D models, for disaster relief experts in the mission's command center.

"These data are crucial for evaluating the situation, allowing safer and more efficient planning" of the search, said Gao Feiyun, 27, a data analyst on the team.

But there are things the drone cannot see. On Sunday, Gao's team climbed for two hours to the middle of the slope to make sure large boulders there were stable.

"It is very dangerous for rescue workers because these boulders may roll down at any moment," said Wen Bin, Gao's teammate. "The drones, along with other detectors, are closely monitoring the slope and will notify the rescue team if there is an emergency."

At about 11:10 am on Monday, an alarm indicating landslide danger went off and the entire rescue force had to evacuate. They resumed work about 1:30 pm, but most of the rescue workers, as well as journalists, had to leave the village about 5:30 pm since the chance of rain also posed additional safety concerns.

As the days have passed, new concerns have arisen.

On Monday, dozens of health workers began to spray the area with disinfectant to prevent disease and harmful insects, said Xian Dengqin, 44, president of Chengdu Armed Police Hospital. That work likely will continue for seven to 10 more days, he added.

"There has been a high density of human activity in this region in the past few days, and without proper sanitation, the waste and garbage might enter the river and pollute the surrounding area," he said.

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