DANDONG, China – Hygiene kits, instant noodles and water purification tablets by the thousands streamed Monday into a North Korean town pulverized by a train explosion last week as international aid efforts accelerated.
As a cold rain fell on the devastated community of Ryongchon (search), just across the Chinese frontier, relief workers cautioned that more assistance was necessary. The death toll stood at 161 on Monday and more than 1,300 people were listed as injured in last Thursday's huge blast, fed by oil and chemicals.
"There is still a huge need for help," said Brendan McDonald, a U.N. (search) aid coordinator in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "The immediate needs for the homeless are under control. The main concern is for those in hospital."
Japan planned to send medical kits and Russia promised aid Monday. South Korea, Australia and China have also agreed to contribute money and supplies.
John Sparrow, a Beijing-based Red Cross (search) spokesman, said an international appeal for more aid would be issued Tuesday morning. He said water and electricity supplies in Ryongchon were "completely disrupted" and that 720,000 water purification tablets had been distributed locally.
In Seoul, Acting President Goh Kun (search) on Monday ordered relief supplies delivered as quickly as possible to the affected area, but North Korea remained hesitant to open up a land route between the neighbors for delivery, and the two sides were still discussing how to handle the aid offer.
The Seoul government has pledged $1 million worth of assistance, including medical supplies. "Making aid materials arrive at the scene as quickly as possible is most important of all," Goh said Monday.
China sent 11 truckloads of tents, blankets, canned food and packages of instant noodles across its border into the North on Sunday.
Days after the catastrophe, details of it were trickling out from the secretive North. Aid workers first arrived in Ryongchon on Saturday, and recounted seeing huge craters, twisted railroad tracks and scorched buildings. Nearly half of the dead were children in a school torn apart by the blast, and the disaster left thousands of residents homeless, the aid workers said.
But most of the 1,300 people that North Korean officials said were injured already had been evacuated to the nearby city of Sinuiju before the aid workers arrived in Ryongchon.
An aid worker who toured Sinuiju on Sunday said that injured children lay on file cabinets as an overcrowded hospital struggled to cope without enough beds or medicine.
Sinuiju Provincial Hospital was treating 360 people injured in the blast, according to Tony Banbury, Asia regional director for the U.N. World Food Program. More than 60 percent of the victims there were children, he said.
"They clearly lack the ability to care for all the patients," Banbury said.
He said the most serious injuries were suffered by children in a school who were struck by a wave of glass, rubble and heat. Many had serious eye injuries, he said.
The hospital was "short of just about everything," Banbury said — including antibiotics, steroids and painkillers. Equipment wasn't plugged in, suggesting it was broken or electricity was insufficient, and the number of beds was so meager that some children were resting on file cabinets.
U.N. officials estimated 40 percent of Ryongchon was damaged.
"People were cleaning up by hand and loading their meager belongings onto ox carts," Banbury said. "They looked like World War I refugees."
North Korea's communist government relaxed its normally intense secrecy as it pleaded for international help. It has blamed the disaster on human error, saying the cargo of oil and chemicals ignited when workers knocked the train cars against power lines.
The statement was unusually frank for a government that controls information tightly, both to the world and its own people.