BEICHUAN, China — Piles of broken concrete rise seven stories high, and a few buildings stand askew, knocked at odd angles. People cry out the names of missing relatives and rescue workers shout, “Is anyone there? Is anyone there?”
On Friday, amid the little that is left of the town of Beichuan, the answers came in faint taps on concrete or muffled cries.
In response to one such muffled call, five volunteers dug with their hands and shovels for more than four hours, freeing a middle-aged woman from a crumpled apartment building.
The woman, who was too weak to speak, was followed by another — and another. In all, 33 people were found, the government said, and they were rushed away on stretchers — bruised, bleeding and covered in dust — about 100 hours after the massive quake struck central China.
The rescues brought momentary relief to the remote mountain town that collapsed on itself. Many of those left in Beichuan or those who came back to search for lost family have steeled themselves for the deaths of their loved ones.
“I’ve called her countless times, but there’s no answer. Now the phone is dead,” said Zhang Mingfeng, who traveled from the nearby city of Jiangyou to look for her 39-year-old sister who was working at Beichuan’s Commerce Bureau when Monday’s quake struck. The office is now a heap of brick and twisted metal, speckled by books and green metal filing cabinets.
“My cousins and I have spent the last few days crying,” said Zhang, her eyes tearing as she surveyed the ruins. “The last time we saw her was Sunday, when we had lunch together. It was family time.”
Beichuan, set deep in a verdant valley 100 miles north of Sichuan’s provincial capital of Chengdu, had a population of about 30,000 before the quake. It is surrounded by small coal and gold mines and tea plantations. Rare pandas live in its forest-clad hills.
Among the hardest hit by the quake, Beichuan now looks like a pile of matchsticks. Mounds of debris stand seven stories high, with smoke plumes rising from some of the wreckage. Landslides raked gigantic gashes in the mountainsides. Roads leading into the county buckled like freeway offramps leading to nowhere, isolating its three larger towns and 13 hamlets and most of its 160,000 people. Some estimates by state media put the death toll for the county at 7,000. Xinhua said 3,000 were killed in the town of Beichuan alone.
Today, Beichuan was abuzz with activity as soldiers, police and emergency workers flooded into the disaster zone. Sirens wailed, heavy machinery whined and the acrid air smelled of smoke, rotting food and chemicals.
Dozens of people were streaming out, looking for food and shelter after being trapped for days.
“We’ve been terrified since the earthquake destroyed our home,” said Shen Xinyong, who trekked for six hours down a mountain to Beichuan with her husband, two children and parents, hoping to reach the city of Mianyang 56 miles away.
“We’ve been digging the earth for our food — gourds, potatoes — anything we’ve planted,” said Shen, 27. Dressed in jeans and a white sweater, she said the family brought little more than the clothes they were wearing because of the long journey.
Some brought more. Two men carried a wide-screen television, while one pushed an elderly woman in a wheelchair. Yet another struggled with a plastic-wrapped corpse in a wheelbarrow.
Walking through the tumble of mud and chunks of concrete, steel and glass on what’s left of Beichuan’s streets were hundreds of soldiers and desperate relatives searching for family, some gripping bags of food and medicine.
Among them was Liu Jingyong, a 43-year-old migrant worker, who rushed back from Zhenghzou city several provinces away to try to find his cousin.
“I have not had any information from him,” said Liu, who spent two days riding a bus and hiking. “This is so hard on me. I don’t know what is going on.”
Throughout the day, teams of volunteers from all over China — some with specially trained dogs — made their way through the debris, shouting for survivors.
A teenage student was pulled from the wreckage of her school by the five volunteers who heard her tapping and then tracked the sounds. The girl shielded her eyes from the sun when she emerged, wan and quiet, said Xu Tao, a volunteer.
The same team later rescued the middle-aged woman, who after crying out to them was too weak to speak.
“She had the will to live,” said Xu, a demobilized soldier and now an office worker in the eastern city of Tangshan. “I’m just exhausted.”
Peng Zhijun, 46, who suffered fractured bones and slight injuries, lived by eating cigarettes and paper napkins and drinking his urine, the Xinhua News Agency said. Peng said more than 10 others had been buried with him but died because they did not listen to his advice to drink their urine, according to the report.
Others were freed elsewhere in the disaster area, a mountainous area the size of Maryland. In Yingxiu, at the other end of the quake-zone yet like Beichuan one of the worst-affected areas, two people were pulled from the rubble, one a man whose right foot was partly missing and covered in a bloody bandage.
White-helmeted soldiers spent hours swarming over the debris of a three-story building on the grounds of a fertilizer factory in the town of Yinghua, to the south, near Shifang. Dozens of soldiers freed a single survivor, described by bystanders as a 50-year-old driver. He was quickly wrapped in a floral blanket and placed on a stretcher. As rescuers carried him to an ambulance, applause rang out.
The moment of celebration was brief — shortly afterward, rescuers pulled out yet another body, which was placed in a yellow bag and loaded on a truck.
In what had been Beichuan’s commercial center, alleys of restaurants, convenience stores and shoe and clothing shops were impassable with debris, overturned cars, and scattered merchandise.
People scavenged the ruins for food and other usable items. In one section, six bodies covered in quilts lay on mattresses or bed frames.
“It’s no use,” said one volunteer as he searched fruitlessly for survivors. “This is a city of the dead.”