HANWANG, China Rescuers arrived for the first time in the epicenter of China's massive earthquake, scouring flattened mountain villages for thousands of victims and distributing air-dropped supplies to survivors.
The official Xinhua News Agency said some 2,000 soldiers were sent to repair "extremely dangerous" cracks in the Zipingpu Dam upriver from the earthquake-hit city of Dujiangyan.
The government said late Wednesday that experts had inspected the dam and declared it safe, according to a statement broadcast on state TV and posted on the Sichuan government Web site.
Still, another report said the reservoir behind the dam was being emptied to relieve pressure on the structure.
"The flow is extremely swift, and the bottom of the reservoir can be seen, showing the riverbed," the state-sponsored Chinese business news magazine Caijing said in a report from the scene that was posted on its Web site.
Four-inch cracks had opened up on top of the dam, and landslides poured down on the hills on either side, the report said.
China's top economic planning body said that the quake had damaged 391 mostly small dams. He Biao, the director of the Aba Disaster Relief headquarters in northern Sichuan province, said there were concerns over dams close to the epicenter.
"Currently, the most dangerous problems are several reservoirs near Wenchuan," he said, according to a transcript on the CCTV Web site.
"There are already serious problems with the Tulong Reservoir on the Min River. It may collapse. If that happens, it would affect several power plants below and be extremely dangerous," he said.
Help also began to arrive by helicopter and on foot in some of the hardest-to-reach areas, where some victims trapped for more than two days under collapsed buildings were still being pulled out alive. But the enormous scale of the devastation meant that resources were stretched thin, and makeshift aid stations and refugee centers were springing up over the disaster area the size of Belgium.
The death toll of nearly 15,000 appeared likely to soar far higher.
Leveled hospitals forced doctors and nurses to treat survivors in the street. Helicopters dropped food and medicine to isolated towns. Mourners burned money before rows of bodies, believing their lost relatives could use it in the afterlife.
Xinhua quoted government officials as saying rescuers who hiked Wednesday into the city of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county the epicenter of the quake found only 2,300 survivors in the town of about 10,000, with another 1,000 badly hurt.
The official death toll rose Wednesday to 14,866, Xinhua said, but it was not immediately clear if that number included the 7,700 reported dead in Yingxiu. In Sichuan province alone, another 25,788 people were buried and 1,405 were missing, provincial vice governor Li Chengyun said, according to Xinhua.
Twelve Americans were found safe near the epicenter of the quake.
A spokeswoman for the World Wildlife Fund said the 12 members of the wildlife group were reached by satellite phone earlier in the day. The team was near the world's most famous panda preserve in Wolong, whose pandas were reported safe Tuesday.
Unlike previous natural disasters in China, official media have reported prominently on the quake and state TV canceled regular programming to run 24-hour coverage.
Scenes of destruction and death have been shown, along with prominent focus on Premier Wen Jiabao, who rushed Monday to Sichuan to oversee the rescue work. He has been shown crawling into collapsed buildings to urge survivors to hang on with impassioned pleas, and seen reassuring children who had lost parents.
Wen was there when one 3-year-old girl trapped for more than 40 hours under the bodies of her parents was pulled to safety Wednesday in Beichuan region, Xinhua said.
Rescuers found Song Xinyi on Tuesday morning, but were unable to pull her out right away due to fears the debris above her would collapse. She was fed and shielded from the rain until rescuers extricated her from the rubble.
Elsewhere, a 34-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant was rescued after spending 50 hours under debris in Dujiangyan.
"It's a miracle brought about by us all working together," said Sun Guoli, fire chief of the nearby provincial capital Chengdu, who supervised the rescue.
The show of official empathy was aimed at reassuring the public about the government's response and also showing the world the country is ready to host the Beijing Olympics in August. Wednesday's leg of the Olympic torch relay in the southeastern city of Ruijin began with a minute of silence.
Pope Benedict XVI said he was praying for the victims.
President Hu Jintao presided over an emergency meeting of the Communist Party's highest body, the second such meeting since the quake happened. Hu, also secretary-general of the party, urged the military, police and others to rush to the disaster area to help.
The death toll from the quake was expected to rise when rescuers reach other towns in Wenchuan county that remained cut off.
"The Communist Party Central Committee has not forgotten this place," Wen said after flying by helicopter to Wenchuan, adding that some 50 injured people had been airlifted from the area.
Relief efforts were aided in their third day by the clearing of storms that had prevented flights over some of the worst-hit towns. Military helicopters seen flying north over Dujiangyan, and Xinhua said some had airdropped food, drinking water and medicine to Yingxiu.
East of the epicenter in the town of Hanwang, the smell of incense hung over a crowd of sobbing relatives who walked among some 60 bodies wrapped in plastic, some covered with tributes of branches or flowers.
Nearby, rescuers carried more bodies out of a makeshift morgue at the Dongqi sports arena. People from the town and surrounding areas packed into blue tents provided by relief officials. A Western-style clock tower in the town center had stopped at 2:27 the time the quake hit.
The Mianzhu No. 3 Hospital was obliterated, and the seven-story main Hanwang Hospital collapsed. Surviving medical staff set up a triage center in the driveway of a tire factory, but could only provide basic care.
"The first day hundreds of kids died when a school collapsed. The rest who came in had serious injuries. There was so little we could do for them," said Zhao Xiaoli, a nurse at Hanwang Hospital.
Emergency vehicle sirens sounded every few minutes. An ambulance drove in, delivering a man pulled from the rubble and covered in dust.
"There will be a lot more people. So many still haven't been found," said Zhao.
Disorienting episodes added to the struggle for survival in much of the disaster zone. The Mianyang city government ordered its 700,000 residents to evacuate all buildings between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. because an aftershock was predicted.In Chengdu, water to some parts of the city was cut for repairs, touching off a rumor that the supply was contaminated. People began hoarding water and water pressure citywide dropped before a senior official went on TV to deny anything was wrong.
Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen and Bill Foreman in Dujiangyan contributed to this report.