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36 Dead, 23 Missing in Bridge Collapse
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The death toll from a bridge collapse in central China's Hunan Province has risen to 36 as of midday Wednesday with at least 23 still missing.

Meanwhile, water supply has been cut off as pipes of the local water plant were broken by the collapsed bridge, posing water shortages for residents and tourists.

The road bridge, which was being constructed over the Tuojiang River in Fenghuang County, collapsed at 4:40 p.m. on Monday, blocking the Fenghuang-Daxing highway. At least 123 workers were at the site, according to earlier calculations, but more than 1,560 rescuers are still trying to determine the exact number.

A total of 86 people have escaped or been rescued, of whom 22 were injured, including five who are still in critical condition, said sources with the local rescue headquarters.

Construction of the 328-meter-long, 42-meter-high bridge was scheduled for completion this month and workers have been dismantling steel scaffolding erected during the construction process since mid July.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued an order to local governments and relevant departments "to do the utmost to carry out rescue and treatment work and handle properly the aftermath of the accident".

Wen also told them to "find out the cause of the collapse and severely punish those responsible."

The construction project, involving an estimated investment of 12 million yuan (US$1.6 million), belongs to Fengda Company based in Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in western Hunan, with the contractor of the provincial Road and Bridge Construction (Group) Ltd. Co. (RBC).

Local police have detained Xia Youjia, construction manager on behalf of RBC, and project supervisor Jiang Ping.

All technical data about the bridge has been sealed up for examination.

Frightened survivors

"We didn't see any sign of a problem before the tragedy," said a member of staff at a scenic site close to the bridge who declined to be named, "I heard the sounds of the crash and before I could realize what was happening, I saw the bridge fall slowly and become a pile of rocks."

Sitting by the Tuojiang River, 29-year-old Tian Jing, who was working to build the bridge, is still in shock. He came to work at the bridge from Tuanjie village in Fenghuang only a month ago.

"I was dismantling the scaffolding when some pebbles fell down,” he recalled. Only minutes later he heard someone shouting, "The bridge is collapsing!" Tian ran for cover but his fellow villagers were not as lucky.

"Three of my fellow villagers were buried in the debris," he said, "they are dead."

Mechanical diggers and sniffer dogs are being used to locate the missing workers.

Yang Long, a villager from Jinping village whose home was just a dozen meters from the site, said he had seen several bodies being dug out from the debris. "Their arms and legs were broken, only linked with skin," he said. The discoveries were accompanied by shouts and cries from relatives of the workers.

More than 120 doctors and nurses are present at the site, while more have been summoned for the rescue operation.

"The bulk of the collapsed bridge was huge and it is very difficult to recover the missing buried under the rocks," said Luo Ming, vice Party Secretary of Fenghuang County.

Fenghuang, in western Hunan and 700 kilometers away from the provincial capital Changsha, is home to the Tujia and Miao ethnic minorities and a famous tourist destination.

Slim chance of survival

A team of around 20 members, including State Councilor Hua Jianmin, Minister of Communications Li Shenglin, State Administration of Work Safety director Li Yizhong and Vice Minister of Construction Huang Wei, arrived at the site Tuesday afternoon to oversee rescue efforts. Governor of Hunan Province Zhou Qiang was also at the site.

Yang Jun, a doctor in charge of emergency medical treatment at the site, told Xinhua that "the missing had slim hopes of survival due to possible deadly wallops by falling rocks and lack of food and water under the debris amid the hot weather."

More than 10 medical workers disinfected the section of the Tuojiang River near the collapse site on Tuesday to prevent any epidemic from the human deaths.

Wang Pingwen, a worker with the Fenghuang Disease Control and Prevention Center, said they would keep monitoring to ensure drinking water safety of residents.

Water supply cut off

"We can only get water from wells and Tuojiang River," said an old woman with two buckets on the shoulder. More than 10 people queued in front of a well in a cement factory waiting for their turns to get water.

More than 70,000 residents in the Fenghuang county seat were facing water shortages after the pipes of the local water plant were broken by the collapsed bridge.

The water supply cut-off also affected a local hospital where 17 wounded workers were being treated. A hospital staff told Xinhua they were planning to drive a car and fetch water from the Tuojiang River.

More than 10 experts and workers have been sent to sterilize at the accident site, aiming to prevent diseases and plagues.

Wang Pingwen, an official with the Fenghuang center of disease control, said "sterilization is necessary as the county seat lies downstream the collapsed bridge."

Wang said the center would keep a close eye on water quality to ensure safety of local people.

The water cut-off also affected thousands of tourists in Fenghuang, a famous tourist destination both in China and abroad.

(Xinhua News Agency August 15, 2007)

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