Chinese rescue teams fought altitude sickness, freezing temperature and gusty winds as they raced against time in their search for survivors in the quake zone of western China.
Rescue workers used shovels and their bare hands due to a lack of heavy equipment. An ABC team travelling to the quake zone witnessed the difficulties of getting heavy equipment into the devastated areas. Trucks struggled to pull bulldozers and excavators on the steep mountain passes along the bumpy, unpaved roads. The long ride from the provincial capital could take as long as 15 hours.
At 13,000 feet above sea level, our team also experienced the difficulty felt by rescuers in breathing the thin air of the Tibetan plateau and suffering from headaches and nausea.
But as rescue efforts entered the second day in the remote mountainous region in Qinghai province, there were glimpses of hope amid the chaos and devastation.
Chinese authorities announced that rescuers pulled out more than 1,000 survivors from under the rubble. One of the lucky ones was a girl trapped for more than 16 hours beneath a concrete slab.
State television showed rescuers with flashlights on their helmets searching through the debris last night. One team found the girl. "I can't feel my arm," she said as workers gave her water while others looked for pieces of wood to prop up the slab that pressed on her.
They carefully pulled the girl out and carried her on a stretcher. Chinese viewers could hear her faint voice as she told the rescuers, "I am sorry for the trouble. Thank you, I will never forget this."
The official Xinhua news agency also reported that 48 students were among those rescued from under the debris of collapsed schools.
Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in the quake zone to visit survivors and check up on the rescue operations as the government dispatched more transport planes to carry medical supplies and disaster relief items to the area.
Meanwhile, the official death toll rose to 617 and is expected to increase further as 313 others are reported to be missing. Among the 10,000 injured, a Chinese official said 970 were in serious condition.
The death toll included 66 students and 10 teachers who were buried when schools collapsed in Yushu, the area worst hit by the powerful quake. The Yushu vocational school was badly damaged, resulting in the death of 22 students, all of whom were girls.
According to Xinhua, a Chinese official said at least 11 schools in Yushu were destroyed during the quake and a search was still going on for more than 50 students believed to be trapped under the rubble.
The scenes in Qinghai were reminiscent of the deadly 2008 earthquake in neighboring Sichuan province, which left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing. The victims also included thousands of children in poorly constructed schools, causing public anger and accusations of corruption among school and government officials.
The sensitivity of the issue was reflected in a statement by an Education Ministry spokesperson in Beijing, denying Chinese press reports that as many as 200 children were buried under the rubble of a Yushu elementary school.
An official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs said about 15,000 houses had collapsed and 100,000 people were homeless and needed to be relocated. Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, Zou Ming, the director of the ministry's disaster relief department, appealed for tents, coats and food for the homeless in the quake zone.
"Tents, winter clothes, quilts and instant food are most needed in the quake-hit region," Zou told reporters. He said tents and other relief items are being shipped to Yushu but there will be delays in sending all of the needed supplies due to transport bottlenecks.
Most of the quake survivors faced the prospect of spending a second night in the open air in freezing weather. Last night, some managed to set up their own tents while others wrapped themselves up with quilts taken from their destroyed homes. A number of survivors even sought temporary shelter inside buildings that remained standing after the quake.
Yushu is a poor area populated mostly by Tibetan farmers and yak herdsmen. China considers Yushu as a "Tibetan autonomous prefecture" under Qinghai province that is separate from the Tibet autonomous region. On the other hand, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, views Yushu and other areas of Qinghai and Gansu provinces as part of a "Greater Tibet." The birth place of the Dalai Lama is in Qinghai.
The Dalai Lama issued a statement saying he was praying for the quake 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 laureate.
Both Wednesday's quake and the deadly one in Sichuan two years ago occurred along the Longmenshan fault, which according to geologists runs underneath the mountains that divide the Tibetan plateau in the west and the Sichuan plain below.