He was alive and rescue workers knew he was there, yet he dangled. There were so many other victims, the workers said, and not enough heavy equipment.
"I feel like I'm already dead," the man said in Wednesday's gathering darkness. All that could be seen of him was his gray pants leg and a black-and-white sneaker.
China quickly mobilized one of the largest relief operations in its modern history after the magnitude-7.9 earthquake rocked southwestern China, but, as a trek into one of the worst-hit areas showed, even that effort was falling short for many victims of the vast devastation.
The earthquake dealt rescuers an especially cruel challenge because much of its damage was done in remote, mountainous areas like Beichuan. The town, a mile hike from the nearest functioning road, sits at the heart of a county with the same name that accounted for an estimated 5,000 deaths -- more than a third of those reported so far.
China's government reacted rapidly in the hours after the quake, the country's worst natural disaster in more than 30 years. And by all accounts, the relief effort has been enormous -- including the largest airlift, Xinhua said, in the history of the two-million-member People's Liberation Army, which is running the campaign. Nearly 100,000 military personnel have been deployed to the disaster zone. Beset by inclement weather and a series of aftershocks that have complicated relief efforts, soldiers have in some cases parachuted into areas too isolated to be reached in other ways.
Yet, the relief work across the disaster zone has also at times appeared disorganized or of limited effectiveness. On Thursday morning Beijing said it would permit an unidentified team of Japanese rescue experts to join the effort, a possible acknowledgement from China's government that it requires emergency assistance.
The destruction in Beichuan, a market town whose growing wealth can be measured by the cars crushed on its streets, was overwhelming. Huge parts of the town, nestled in a valley, were now buried under the collapsed mountains around it. The rubble-strewn streets were littered with bodies, some crushed under rocks, others twisted in cars smashed like soda cans. Some corpses lay by the side of the road with blankets thrown over them. One woman sat on a giant pile of rubble, sobbing and saying the same name again and again.
Rescuers dug frantically through the rubble of a wrecked kindergarten, still pulling out survivors. Children found alive were carried in the arms of rescuers out of the town and up a steep muddy slope to safety.
Further into town, there was a forlorn silence punctuated by the cries of trapped survivors who weren't being reached as handfuls of rescue workers wandered aimlessly, useless without heavy equipment to move boulders and chunks of ruined buildings. On the road leading into the valley, a traffic jam six miles long kept hundreds of trucks and perhaps thousands of rescuers at bay.
On Wednesday, reporters from Xinhua reached Wenchuan County, the site of the quake's epicenter, for the first time. Bad weather and landslides had kept relief workers from reaching the town for about 24 hours after the quake. The Xinhua reporters found the situation "worse than expected." In one town, Yingxiu, local officials said that only 2,300 of the 10,000 residents appear to have survived.
Even some more-accessible areas wanted for relief workers or essential equipment more than two days after the temblor struck. Homeless victims have had to sleep uncovered in the rain for lack of tents. Bottled water and gasoline are already running out in places. Poor sanitation in refugee centers threatens to exacerbate the misery with disease.
Among the dangers that could further aggravate the plight of survivors is damage to 391 of the disaster area's many dams and reservoirs. Of particular concern is the Zipingpu dam, which sits upriver from the battered tourist town of Dujiangyan, and which was cracked by the quake. An official at the Ministry of Water Resources said that a team of experts sent to examine Zipingpu has reported so far that the dam's structure is stable and safe. But the official said that the inspection work is continuing.
Officials said they don't yet have plans for what to do about the homeless, who may number in the hundreds of thousands. "It's right to consider rebuilding upfront, but we don't have specific plans yet," said Wang Zhenyao, director of the Disaster Relief Division at the Ministry of Civil Affairs. He said the priority is still rescuing survivors.
Foreign aid agencies agreed that rescue efforts are paramount. "The next 24 to 36 hours will be the most critical time," said Kevin Chiu, chief executive of the Hong Kong chapter of the international aid organization World Vision.
Financial donations and offers of assistance have poured in from foreign countries and international relief groups.
China's government has expressed gratitude for the offers of assistance, but until Thursday had not invited foreign emergency-response teams to participate in rescue efforts, despite signs that medical personnel and other resources are becoming strained.
That has proved frustrating for some foreign aid agencies eager to help while their expertise could still save lives.
Japan learned the hard way that turning down expertise can prove painful during its Kobe quake, which killed more than 6,400 people. Instead of being deployed immediately to deal with the quake, foreign rescue dogs were quarantined and medical-licensing bureaucracy kept U.S. doctors from treating patients for three days after their arrival.
Even though they have visas, 10 members of a specialized search-and-rescue team from the United Kingdom's International Rescue Corps were stuck in Hong Kong, awaiting permission to enter China.
"All we can do is offer our help," said Paul Baxter, a spokesman for the group, which isn't affiliated with the U.K. government. "If it's not taken, that's unfortunate. Right now it's a waiting game."
The IRC's team has specialized equipment for locating buried survivors: an acoustic device that can detect faint sounds in the rubble, a carbon-dioxide detector that can pick up higher concentrations of the gas from people trapped in confined spaces, a video probe, and thermal equipment that can help find people by spotting their body heat.
China, which has demonstrated its own such technology in state media reports, has said conditions in the disaster zone make it impractical for foreign-aid teams to come at this point. "Now even our military troops are not able to get there," said Mr. Wang, the Disaster Relief Division director. He said authorities are still discussing overseas offers.
While Myanmar's military government has come under intense criticism for its refusal of foreign aid after this month's devastating cyclone, some foreign experts said the Chinese decision is understandable. Language and cultural factors can make it difficult to accommodate foreigners in the chaos of a relief effort. In the Kobe quake, the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia lost valuable time arranging interpreters, transportation and accommodations for a team of French doctors who came to assist, said Shigeru Suganami, the Japan-based organization's chief.
Kate Redman, a spokeswoman in London for Save the Children, a nonprofit aid organization, praised China's efforts so far: "In this particular case this is definitely the right way to go about it."
The limitations of the official response, however, were evident Wednesday night in Pengzhou, a town about 40 miles from the epicenter, as waves of military trucks arrived carrying thousands of people from their ruined homes in the nearby mountains. Deposited in the dusty town center, they waited for periodic distributions of food, with no instructions about what to do next. Some were starting to get sick, and unable to get medicine because they have no money.
Storefronts in Pengzhou were soon labeled with handwritten lists of villages on them, so people could find their neighbors.
Deng Jun, 24, helped guide over 400 people from his village of Yinchangge to the nearest town in order to get rescued. The group had to spend the night outside in the rain, and Mr. Deng said his 9-month old son has gotten sick. "His nose is running, and he's been crying for days. We didn't have anything to feed him since Monday," Mr. Deng said. "I took him to the hospital but they turned us away because I don't have my identification card." Mr. Deng said he tried to buy medicine in the pharmacy, but couldn't afford it. The price had been raised by a third.
Another several hundred people stayed behind in Mr. Deng's village, he said, because they were injured or too old to walk out with him.