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Rescue, Recovery Continue in China Quake Zone

May 15, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News correspondent: There’s only one way into Beichuan — by foot — so that’s how the soldiers are carrying in their rescue equipment.

The earthquake cut the road, so they have to take survivors out along the same path through the hills.

Military units have been deployed from all over China. This is a national priority.

We joined reinforcements and volunteers walking in. From our vantage point, we caught our first glimpse of the devastation: 161,000 people used to live in Beichuan; now 80 percent of their hometown is in ruins.

Lives in ruins, too, lives in these houses, the walls sheered off at the moment of the quake.

After an hour, we reached the center. The military must cross a dry riverbed to get to this part of town. They have no time to lose. Thousands of troops have been assigned to save what lives they can, to comb through the mountains of rubble in search of any sign of life.

RESCUE VOLUNTEER: They’re pretty far. I don’t know. We only can hear them.

LINDSEY HILSUM: American Red Cross volunteers who live locally have joined the Chinese rescue effort. They’re working out how to reach people. There’s no time to waste, but a wrong move could create more destruction.

RESCUE VOLUNTEER: It’s right behind the wall. You can hear it.

RESCUE VOLUNTEER: Seriously? Could we tap a hole into it?

LINDSEY HILSUM: People have been known to survive a week or even more in such conditions.

RESCUE VOLUNTEER: Actually, we have a lady trapped in the next building over, and we’re having trouble getting her out. She’s right on the other side of the wall, and this building is leaning on it. So the whole structure is so unstable, they’re trying to crawl through a window to get to her.

LINDSEY HILSUM: One in 10 residents here are believed to have been killed or injured, and the number may yet rise.

It seems amazing that anybody could be left alive in this building here, yet they say that there’s one person on the ground floor and three, maybe four elsewhere.

It’s unimaginable the terror those people must have felt during the earthquake and now, lying here for three days, still conscious, not knowing if they’re going to die slowly or be rescued.

In the ruins, we spotted this couple. They’ve come to look for his parents and for their 4-year-old daughter. Grief is turning to bitterness; they need someone to blame.

EARTHQUAKE VICTIM: When we entered, we were told there were 10,000 rescue workers, but we didn’t see so many. Our hearts are cold. This is not rescuing; this is pushing people to death. We needed to conquer time, but we lost the battle.

LINDSEY HILSUM: They say the government, someone, anyone, should have warned them about the earthquake. They and tens of thousands of others just can’t accept what’s happened.

Overhead, helicopters circled. Some have been surveying the damage, others dropping supplies to even more remote areas. Half a mile back up the path, the military and the local authorities were discussing what to do about the road.

The local mayor tells the officers that the rebuilding of the road is paramount because many people in the town depend on it, and the moment the road is through, even tonight, he says, equipment can enter.

They’re working on it, but there’s no way it can be open tonight or even tomorrow.

On the outskirts of town, a scene repeated across this devastated province: Beichuan Middle School, one of the best in the area, collapsed, burying more than 1,000 students and teachers. Today, they brought out some alive, but many more dead.

The parents watch, hope turning to despair and anger. Li Chi’s (ph) 16-year-old son is buried in the rubble. “We miss him very much,” he says.

And he and others are now asking why a school built only a decade ago couldn’t withstand the quake while older buildings did.

EARTHQUAKE VICTIM: This kind of bad quality building is the result of the developers using inferior materials. This is the cause of the disaster which has befallen our children. You can imagine what we are all suffering.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Around the corner, dozens of corpses and hundreds have already been removed. Beichuan is just one town, this just one school, one of the worst hit, but there are many others, some which have not yet been reached.

The rescuers may be doing their best, but there are questions: Were the schools badly built? Why? Who will provide the answers to the grieving parents of Beichuan?