Addressing residents of Gyegu in remote and windswept Yushu county high on the Tibetan plateau late on Thursday, Premier Wen Jiabao clambered over rubble and pledged continued rescue efforts.
Survivors of Wednesday’s tremor spent the night huddled under quilts and in tents, while doctors struggled to treat the wounded in a makeshift medical centre.
At a foothill under the main monastery of Gyegu, monks had gathered to chant Tibetan Buddhist mantras in front of piles of dead. Some helped residents look for kin among what appeared to be hundreds of bodies, collected on a covered platform.
“Many of the bodies you see here don’t have families or their families haven’t come looking for them, so it’s our job to take good care of them,” said Lopu, a monk clad in maroon robes.
“I’d say we’ve collected a thousand or more bodies here. Some we found ourselves, some were sent to us.”
Some local Tibetans said they didn’t believe the official death toll estimate of 760, saying many more had died without being officially counted.
Many more bodies had already been removed by family members, Lopu said.
The actual death toll is still unclear, but the damage was mainly around Gyegu, where most of Yushu county’s 100,000 people reside. Estimates by NGOs support a figure of around 1,000 dead.
Some 243 people are still listed as missing, and over 1,000 as “seriously injured.”
In remarks translated into Tibetan to a receptive crowd, Premier Wen pledged that rescuers would not give up hope of finding people still trapped under rubble.
But temperatures well below freezing at night leave little chance of anyone still surviving under collapsed buildings.
Many injured locals spent a cold night in tents or outdoors waiting for medical aid. Harried doctors said they had had almost no sleep over the past two days.
Some pregnant women were transferred 1,000 km (620-km) to the provincial capital, Xining, after at least two babies were born in tents outside Gyegu’s damaged hospital, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Chinese President Hu Jintao cut short a summit in Brazil, and cancelled a planned trip to Venezuela and Chile in order to return early to China.
Convoys carrying tents, water, food, blankets and medical equipment continued to roll into Yushu county on Friday. Chinese volunteer organisations and state media launched fund-raising and clothing drives. Reuters