BEICHUAN, China - China has decided not to rebuild the largest town destroyed in this month's savage earthquake and may instead leave the town's towers of rubble as a memorial park in place for generations of awe-stricken visitors to witness.

Tucked in a steep river valley atop the unstable Longmen Fault, this onetime town of 20,000 is in too vulnerable a location to rebuild, officials said.

"Experts say the only option is to move the town and keep the remains," said Zhang Jie, press spokesman for Mianyang municipality, which oversees this town.

The State Council, China's cabinet, will make a final decision on whether to turn Beichuan into a memorial by the end of the month, Zhang said.

Of Beichuan's inhabitants, about 8,600 are known to have died and 5,894 others are considered missing. The rest appear to have survived.

As of yesterday, the quake's overall death toll stood at 55,239, with 29,358 missing.

Zhang added that survivors of Beichuan have been relocated to the nearby cities of Mianyang and Anxian and will not be permitted to return.

Soldiers already guard entry to the ruined city, barring access because of fears of infection and concern that a river blocked by landslides above the town, forming two lakes, may suddenly burst, letting a deluge down the valley.

State media have reported that residents who lost property in the city, and in other quake-devastated areas, will receive compensation and subsidies, but the specific amounts have not been released.

China would not be the first country to seal off a town devastated by natural disaster.

In 1985, a volcanic eruption melted an ice cap on an Andean peak, triggering a mudslide that buried the town of Armero in Colombia, killing 23,000. The site of the buried town was declared "holy ground" and turned into a commemorative park.

A huge memorial at Beichuan might be a fitting tribute to a calamity that is likely to be seen by historians as a watershed moment for China, an event that mobilized the nation in huge numbers to help the victims and embrace an emotional patriotism.

China's senior leaders arrived in the quake-stricken region to organize relief efforts. They allowed unusual levels of media freedom to satiate a public hungry for information.

Tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese volunteers flocked to the quake zone in Sichuan province to offer their services.

"People are giving their help in any way they can," said Zhu Chujun, who is part of a volunteer team from the eastern city of Hangzhou offering psychological counseling to victims.

If emotions are high in China, Zhu said it was because of a confluence of events.

"Everyone knows that 2008 is a special year," she said, referring to the Beijing Olympics Aug. 8-24.

Many Chinese feel deep pride at their nation's reemergence as a world power, mixed with anger at ethnic Tibetan unrest in March, and frustration at world reaction to China's handling of it.

Then the 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan province in China's rugged southwest, a devastating natural catastrophe with tremors felt across the country.

China's economic might was on full display in the relief effort. Rescue teams drove down new highways built in recent years to arrive at the quake zone quickly, bringing modern earth-moving machinery.

Chinese journalists shook off censorship rules to rush to the area and air vivid accounts of the quake.

Among those who volunteered to help is Wei Baoren, a retired internist from Tangshan, a city near Beijing that lost a quarter-million people in an earthquake in 1976. At that time, Beijing covered up the magnitude of the quake for at least a year.

Chinese Rushing To Adopt Orphans

As the first estimate

of orphans - more than 4,000 - emerged yesterday from last week's deadly earthquake, thousands of Chinese are rushing to offer their homes.

"My husband and I

would really like to adopt an earthquake orphan (0-3 years old)," Wang Liqin wrote on the popular Web site in a forum already three pages long.

The high interest

is another sign of China's tremendous post-quake outpouring of sympathy, buoyed by rising prosperity.

"Every day, my ministry

receives hundreds of calls," Jiang Li, China's vice minister of civil affairs, told reporters this week. At the Civil Affairs Department in Sichuan province, the heart of the disaster area, calls reached 2,000 a day, the state-run Xinhua news agency said.

- Associated Press