MIANYANG, China - A powerful aftershock hit China yesterday, killing at least two people and heightening fears of landslides and flooding, even as more survivors of the May 12 earthquake sought to trek back to their mountain villages.
The afternoon aftershock, centered in southwest Sichuan province, was the strongest of thousands since the initial magnitude 7.9 temblor and damaged about 270,000 houses, the official New China News Agency said. The U.S. Geological Survey measured the aftershock at magnitude 6.0. It was centered in Qingchuan county, about 95 miles northeast of the initial quake's epicenter in Wenchuan, but it was felt across the region, including 800 miles away in Beijing, where people said office buildings swayed.
In Sichuan province, one person was confirmed dead and dozens were seriously injured, New China News Agency said, citing a disaster relief official in Qingchuan county. One person died in neighboring Gansu province.
Earlier in the day, China's central government raised the death toll from the earthquake, the nation's worst disaster in 30 years, to 62,664, with 23,775 people missing.
Chinese television reported yesterday that an 80-year-old man in Mianzhu had been pulled alive from the rubble Friday. Xiao Zhihu had been trapped under a collapsed pillar of his house and survived after being fed by his wife, the television report said.
In Mianyang, south of Qingchuan, the aftershock caused panic in the streets, where many people, as in other places throughout this area, have been sleeping in tents since May 12.
"Everyone was running out of buildings," said Zhang Linlei, 25, who was a few steps from the door of his apartment when the four-story complex shook and the windows above him rattled. "It's quite scary. I will never go back to that place again," he said of his home.
Chinese geologists have been concerned that aftershocks or heavy rains could cause a bursting of dams or overflow of so-called barrier lakes formed by the quake, which could then inundate villages.
About 90 minutes after the aftershock, scores of Chinese soldiers were mobilized at a highway toll plaza just outside Beichuan town, one of the hardest hit areas by the May 12 quake and under threat by a blocked river. The soldiers unloaded boxes of explosives.
Chinese news media at the site said officials had hoped to airlift equipment to get to the lake but that bad weather could force them to blast through the debris to stop potential floods.
Concerns about the weather and more aftershocks probably will keep people at government-run camps and slow their move back home to rebuild. In recent days, officials have exhorted people who can to move on, as the government continues to shift its focus from rescue to resettlement and recovery.
The government wants to relieve some of the overcrowding at camps where many of the estimated 5 million people made homeless by the quake have taken shelter. Many survivors desperately want to return to their communities, eager to start rebuilding homes.
For Wang Liang and Jian Xiaoyan, their 3-year-old girl awaited them in their hometown of Badi, at the western end of Beichuan county. But because of damaged roads, Wang, 31, and Jian, 25, had seven mountains to climb and about 30 miles of walking to reach their baby, who has been under her grandmother's care.
On Saturday, Wang and Jian left Mianyang's Jiuzhou stadium, where about 30,000 quake survivors are living in tents.
Wang and Jian knew it could take two more days to reach Badi by foot. But yesterday morning, they were ready to go.
When the morning drizzle stopped, the pair set off and reached the foot of the first mountain to climb. As they were about to go up, Wang said, some people stopped and told them about landslides and trouble ahead. The couple walked back to the camp in Leigu.
"I cannot risk my life going," she said. "We'll see tomorrow."
Don Lee writes for the Los Angeles Times.