Death toll predicted to reach 50,000

Foreign rescue teams are joining the search for earthquake survivors as China reached out to its neighbours to cope with the aftermath of its most devastating earthquake in three decades.

As the death toll in Sichuan province was officially predicted to reach 50,000 yesterday, there were warnings it could rise significantly higher now that rescue workers have cleared the way to the remote areas of the epicentre where entire towns collapsed in the 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Dujiangyan, Yingxiu, Mianshu, Beichuan, Wenchuan. The names read like a roll call of death as images of devastation have been broadcast around the world. Soldiers and medical teams yesterday reached Wenchuan, the nearest city to the epicentre of the quake, and found the town of 118,000 people almost completely flattened. Half of the epicentre town of Yingxiu was razed to the ground.

A group of 19 British holidaymakers, who were on a panda-watching trip in Wenchuan county at the Wolong reserve when the earthquake struck, feared being "buried alive". Diane Atkins, from Portchester, Hampshire, told Sky News that the earthquake sounded like a train. "Then I thought it can't be a train here, this is more, and I opened the door and all the floor was moving up and my husband was running towards me panic-stricken," she said. "Then we looked around and everybody was running and rocks were falling and then we looked up and the mountain just seemed to explode."

China, whose military has prided itself on being able to cope alone with natural disasters, has shifted gear by issuing a rare public appeal to its own citizens for rescue equipment (down to hammers and shovels) and accepted outside help. About 130,000 Chinese soldiers and police have been poured into the search and rescue effort. About 15,000 people are believed to be buried in the rubble.

Significantly, authorities accepted a plane-load of blankets, tents and clothes for survivors from Taiwan, considered a renegade province by Beijing. A 60-strong rescue team from Japan is due in the stricken zone today. Britain has given £1m in relief aid, which was directed to non-government organisations in the area.

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