- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

WENCHUAN, China (AP) — China stood still yesterday, mourning tens of thousands of earthquake victims, until a government forecast of a possible strong aftershock sent jittery people in the disaster area rushing into the streets.

Construction workers, shopkeepers and bureaucrats across the bustling nation of 1.3 billion people paused for three minutes of tribute at 2:28 p.m. — exactly one week after the magnitude 7.9 quake hit central China.

Air-raid sirens and the horns of cars and buses sounded in memory of the dead, expected to surpass 50,000.

Rescuers also briefly halted work in the disaster zone, where the hunt for survivors turned glum despite remarkable survival tales among thousands buried in the rubble. Two women were rescued yesterday after being trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building at a coal mine in Sichuan province, where the quake was centered, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The national pause, on the first of three days of national mourning, seemed stark for a country that is usually in frenetic motion, and the calm ended abruptly.

A National Seismology Bureau forecast of a possible magnitude 6 to 7 aftershock that was read aloud on national television jangled already tense nerves.

In Mianyang, closer to the quake zone, people took pillows, blankets and chairs from homes into the open or slept in cars. The Mianyang Women and Children’s Hospital moved patients into the square outside the railway station, setting up beds, medicine trays and tents.

The forecast and reaction were more signs of how skittish the region remains since the May 12 quake, with a confirmed death toll of 34,073, according to the State Council, China’s Cabinet.

Officials said they expect final deaths in the disaster to exceed 50,000, with more than 245,000 injured. Losses to businesses totaled $9.5 billion, Deputy Industry Minister Xi Guohua said yesterday.

More landslides were predicted by the Central Meteorological Observatory, with heavy rains forecast this week for some areas close to the epicenter. And a magnitude 5.4 aftershock yesterday afternoon damaged the only road leading out of the city of Qingchuan north of the epicenter, Xinhua said.

The panic set off in Sichuan came from a forecast after experts at the National Seismology Bureau studied data from last week’s magnitude 7.9 quake. A Xinhua report said the experts differed over the data but, out of concern for the public, decided to release the prediction of the “rather great” possibility of a magnitude 6 to 7 aftershock yesterday or today.

The Olympic torch relay, a potent symbol of national pride in the countdown to August’s much-anticipated Beijing games, was suspended.

A convoy of police cars, ambulances and other rescue vehicles let off a long blast from their horns as rescue workers in orange jumpsuits stood quietly with eyes downcast, some removing their white hard hats.

“Our hearts are so heavy, so many of our compatriots are dead,” said rescuer Ma Tangchuan. “As long as we try our best, we have some small hope.”

Hu Yongcui, 38, said she did not care about the public show of mourning as she headed to Beichuan, near the quake’s epicenter, to search for her missing 17-year-old daughter.

“I can’t feel anything. I have no words,” she said. “I just want to go home. I just want to find my daughter.”

Audra Ang in Beichuan, Tini Tran in Mianyang and Cara Anna, Anita Chang and Henry Sanderson in Beijing contributed to this report.