YINGXIU - Fears of a devastating flood from a lake formed by last month's Sichuan earthquake eased on Sunday after hundreds of soldiers and engineers successfully completed a channel to drain away the rising water.

Authorities had evacuated 197,000 people and drawn up plans to move as many as another 1.3 million because of the risks posed by a collapse of the Tangjiashan lake, one of 30 created by landslides touched off by the quake.

bridge over the Fujiang River
©REUTERS/Jason Lee
People pass a bridge over the Fujiang River which connects to the Tangjiashan quake-lake in Youxian district of Mianyang, Sichuan Province June 1, 2008.

Engineers were due to start draining the lake as early as Sunday, according to the official Xinhua news agency, which said the army had been able to abandon back-up plans to use dynamite to blast away debris and relieve pressure on the river feeding into the lake.

The official death toll from the May 12 quake rose slightly on Sunday to 69,016, with 18,830 still missing in remote parts of the mountainous southwestern province.

More than 15 million have been evacuated from the areas hit by the 7.9-magnitude quake, China's worst natural disaster in more than 30 years, the government added.

Ten quake survivors were on board a military helicopter that crashed in foggy conditions on Saturday near Yingxiu, close to the epicenter of the quake.

A search-and-rescue mission was under way for the helicopter, which had a crew of four, Xinhua said.

In Yingxiu itself, the sound of explosions set by army engineers reverberated on Sunday down the steep-sided valley cradling the town.

"They're blasting to clear the remaining buildings. They're all too dangerous," said a volunteer, Jue Xiaoping. "Once they've blasted, we can clear away the rubble and they'll put up new buildings."

Most of the town's surviving residents have been relocated to tent villages. Only a few remain, picking through the ruins.

A woman who gave only her surname, Wang, was struggling to load a mahjong table onto a little cart.

"I've been hearing them all the time now, so it doesn't really bother me," she said of the explosions.


About 40 km (25 miles) down the valley in Dujiangyan, some 200 parents and relatives of pupils killed in the quake gathered on Sunday for a Children's Day commemoration in the rubble-strewn grounds of what used to be Xinjian primary school.

Thousands of children died in the quake when their schools crumpled like packs of cards, arousing suspicions among parents that building standards had been flouted because of corruption.

Responding to the fury of parents is one of the stiffest political challenges for the ruling Communist Party in the aftermath of the quake.

Angry and tearful, they wore white T-shirts with the name of the school on the front and, in huge red characters on the back, the slogan 'Severely Punish Corrupt Tofu Dregs Construction' -- a reference to the remnants left when making tofu, or beancurd, a common Chinese term for shoddy workmanship and poor materials.

Liao Yingxin, who lost his 12-year-old daughter, said: "My heart feels very heavy. I can't really express how it feels."

One parent said 300 children from the school died in the disaster; another said 400.

A little red knapsack poked through the debris. Drawings are still pinned to the walls of one set of classrooms that only partly crumbled. In the rest of the town of Dujiangyan, some buildings are damaged but many others look remarkably unscathed.

"I don't understand much about construction, but I can see all the buildings are standing yet the school is gone," Liao said. "For the sake of the children, the corrupt must be punished."

Another man gestured to the school and said: "If you touch these buildings they turn to powder."

The air was thick with incense as parents burned paper money and left offerings of fruit. Firecrackers were let off to scare away evil spirits.

One father held a picture of a little boy with his arm around a snowman; a woman carried a picture of her dead son wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

"Our beloved children, we wish you a happy Children's Day in the next world," said a woman teacher leading the ceremony.