LUDIAN, China — About 10,000 troops used pickaxes and backhoes to clear roads and dig residents from collapsed homes Tuesday after an earthquake in southwest China that killed 589 people. Groups of volunteers, meanwhile, used their bare hands.
Jackson Zeng joined about two dozen classmates who headed to Yunnan province’s Ludian county, where Sunday’s 6.1-magnitude earthquake collapsed thousands of homes in an impoverished region of mountainous farmland.
“I grew up around here and these are my people. I’m not sure what I can do, but I will help any way that I can,” said Zeng, a third-year student at Kunming University of Science and Technology.
Zeng’s black T-shirt contrasted with the scores of green fatigue-clad troops along the main road into the quake zone. Paramilitary personnel with a backhoe and other heavy equipment pushed earth from a stretch of road affected by a landslide, while Zeng and other students used their hands to push rocks over a cliff.
Many hundreds of volunteers have converged on the nearby city of Zhaotong en route to the quake-hit areas — a typical phenomenon during disasters in China. Many came empty-handed, but some were formed into company-sponsored units complete with uniforms and their own relief aid to distribute.
The government also has sent thousands of tents, quilts, sleeping bags and cotton coats to the region, as well as folding beds, chairs and tables, and mobile toilets.
The quake struck an area of steep hills and narrow roads not suited to all the traffic of the massive relief effort, and heavy rain Tuesday added to the complications. Much of the damage was due to landslides.
Ambulances, bulldozers and trucks filled with water and noodles and the squads of volunteers clogged the main road heading to the hardest-hit town of Longtou, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) northeast of Kunming. Helicopters hoisted supplies to the most remote areas.
The Yunnan Civil Affairs Bureau said Tuesday that 410 people had been killed and 2,373 injured, with 12 people still missing about 48 hours after the quake. Rescuers pulled dozens of trapped people from the debris in the first couple of days.
A 5-year-old boy was dug from a collapsed home Monday, and on Tuesday, state media released a photo taken in a hospital of two pregnant women who comforted each other while trapped in the rubble before they, too, were rescued.
Many of the homes in Ludian, which has a population of about 429,000, were rudimentary mud-brick structures that collapsed easily in the quake.
Cai Jiangping, a 46-year-old corn farmer, pointed to where he and seven members of his extended family had lived on the other side of a river valley just south of Longtou.
“The house is a complete write-off. But we’ll throw some plastic over it and then talk to the insurance company,” he said.
Cai was sheltering with a group of friends, his motorcycle his only surviving possession.
Further from the worst-hit areas, landslides created barrier lakes where water levels were rising Tuesday to pose a new threat to about 800 residents and seven power stations downstream, where sudden flooding could prompt power outages, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The region is prone to earthquakes. In 1970, a magnitude-7.7 earthquake in Yunnan killed at least 15,000 people. In September 2012, a series of quakes killed 81 people.
In May 2008, a powerful quake in Sichuan province left nearly 90,000 people dead.