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Death toll climbs to 1,117 in China mudslides

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: Local residents believe number of death is higher
  • NEW: For some residents, the wait for news is excruciating
  • NEW: Thousands of rescue teams are still searching for survivors
  • The mudslides were triggered by heavy rains that have pounded China all summer

Zhouqu County, China (CNN) -- There were homes here once, but Yueyuan village is now a sweeping mud plain. Residents dig through the sludge where they think their bedroom once was.

Maybe there is still a loved one under there. Maybe he or she is still alive, though hopes of finding survivors in China's massive mudslides are fast dimming.

The death toll Wednesday soared to 1,117, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported, though local residents believe that number to be higher.

Li Jinming had pulled up in his taxi when he witnessed the wall of mud and rocks rush through Yueyuan. Rescue teams found the body of his wife but they are still searching for his two sons. He draws a map of his house, and points out where he believes his boys might have been.

Anxiety, grief and the stench of death overwhelmed Zhouqu County in China's northwestern Gansu province, where torrential rains triggered the mudslides Sunday. Emergency teams have rescued 1,243 people, but 627 people are missing, Xinhua said.

Video: Mud and misery engulf China
Video: Man pulled from rubble amid despair
Video: Parents look for kids in landslide
Video: View of landslide damage

The side of a mountain broke off in the night and tore through remote Zhouqu, burying homes and ripping others apart. The path of the mudslide is covered in three and four stories of rock and mud.

Some buildings, including the police department and a primary school, were flattened by the wall of mud. Others toppled over or vanished completely, buried under sludge several feet deep.

"There was a noise like thunder and then it came down from the sky," said one woman, who did not want to be identified. "There was no way to escape."

People and heavy machinery brought in for rescue and clean-up efforts are sinking in the mud, still soft like quicksand. Flood waters gush through the town, and the threat of more flooding looms after debris has piled up in the river, and water levels are dangerously high.

In the last two days, Zhouqu County experienced rare moments of joy as two men, one 52 and the other 50, were miraculously pulled from the sludge. One of them was trapped on the second floor of a mud-battered hotel.

But for others, the wait for news is excruciating.

Wang Pingtao, 20, has been sitting on debris for two days waiting for his father, whose apartment was buried in mud and sludge, Xinhua said. His father lived on the third floor of a four-story building. Only the roof of the building is visible in the debris.

"I have to see him, whether he's dead or alive," said Wang, who was brought up by his father after his mother died when he was young.

For many, that sight has been gruesome as the bodies of the dead are bloated from the mud. Villagers tell CNN that they don't believe the official tallies of the dead. Too low, they say.

Yueyuan alone had 2,000 residents. There are other villages in the county that were completely smothered by sludge. The morgue is inundated with bodies, splashed with rice wine to diminish the smell of rotting flesh and keep away the flies swarming in the summer heat.

Thousands of soldiers, police officers, firefighters and medics are searching for survivors, the sounds of heaving and digging punctuated by the mournful cries of those who realize they have lost their loved ones. In some cases, entire families were buried alive.

The rescuers, mostly soldiers of the People's Liberation Army and the armed police, said they faced the dilemma of whether to speed up the clean-up and avoid further devastation or keep searching for survivors.

"It's hard to stop searching and let them down," Ren Tianwen, commander of a 700-strong armed police team, told Xinhua. "So the clean-up is going on very slowly. We stop every time there's a chance of finding a body."

CNN's Emily Chang contributed to this report.