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Harrowing tales of loss and despair from China landslide

By Emily Chang, CNN
  • "The we started seeing bodies, body after dead body," Emily Chang
  • A 52-year-old man was pulled out alive after being trapped for 60 hours
  • Over 300 homes were buried in Yueyuan village

Zhouqu County, China (CNN) -- Our journey started with a 16-hour drive, most of it on windy, rugged mountain roads. But we could only drive so far.

As we hiked the last four kilometers to the landslide, we passed villagers trekking out single file. Most were carrying their lives on their back, some with a child on their hip, even a few people were barefoot.

Then we started seeing bodies, body after dead body, wrapped in blankets on makeshift stretchers. Some were carried by soldiers, some by villagers, all headed to the morgue, a parking lot designated on the side of the road.

That night, I settled in for an uneasy sleep in the car with my producer Wen-Chun Fan and photographer Brad Olson, knowing it was just a preview of the devastation we would witness.

After crisscrossing floodwaters, and dodging goat carcasses and mudflows, we reached the site of the actual slide.

Video: Search for loved ones buried in mud
Video: Mud and misery engulf China
Video: Man pulled from rubble amid despair
Video: Parents look for kids in landslide

Several stories of mud and rock stretched down from the mountain that had unleashed this fury. In every direction were soldiers heaving stone after stone and families digging with picks, shovels and their bare hands.

The biggest hazard was the sludge, which Wen-Chun Fan dubbed "quick-mud." If we stepped in the wrong spot, we could easily be swallowed up. There was heavy machinery stranded in the deep mud.

We carefully navigated a network of stones and unsteady planks to reach the survivors. One woman said she was digging for a family of eight. A couple lost their parents and two sons. Another man told us he lost everyone and didn't even have a pair of chopsticks to eat with.

After we finished a series of live shots, the sun seemed to get hotter. Our heavy bags, filled with gear and supplies, seemed heavier. We ran out of water.

One woman offered me a sip of her water, apparently the only bottle she had. When I refused, she tore off a piece of the cardboard box she was sitting on and handed it to me. She didn't have a home and had probably lost a few family members, but she wanted to make sure I'd have a place to sit.

Sitting down was a relief, but it gave me too much time to think, look around and stare at the faces of these people who had lost so much. Every so often, rescuers would reach another dead body and family members would break out in a chorus of wails and screams.

Then we heard screams of what may be called joy. A team of People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers had found signs of life. They pulled a 52-year-old disabled man from the wreckage. He had been trapped for 60 hours. I couldn't see his face, but I saw him move, and knew he was alive.

The celebration was brief. It was the only successful rescue that day.

The next day we thought we might have already seen the worst, until we arrived at Yueyuan village, or what was left of it.

The entire village was smothered beneath a sweeping mud plain. There was barely any evidence that three hundred homes once stood there.

Some people didn't know exactly where to start. One man said he thought he was digging into his brother's bedroom, but still had found no evidence of a structure.

Another man, Mr. Li, had already found his wife's body, but was still looking for the remains of his two sons. He drew a map for us, room by room, speculating about where they might have been when the landslide happened. A pile of blankets, bowls and a lamp shade were all he had left. He said he hadn't been able to bury his wife yet - the town had run out of coffins.

It was a journey filled with images we would all rather forget but will probably always remember. When we passed the morgue two days later, many bodies had been partially unwrapped by family members hoping to find their loved ones.