Rescue workers raced to find survivors of the worst earthquake to strike China for 32 years as schools, factories and a hospital were reduced to rubble yesterday afternoon at a time when classrooms were full and workplaces busy.
By nightfall the official death toll stood at 8,533 across southwestern Sichuan province, but rescue teams were still struggling to reach towns cut off by smashed roads and landslides in the worst-affected parts of the mountainous earthquake zone.
There were fears that tens of thousands may lie buried by debris in the dirt-poor town of Wenchuan, whose 110,000 residents had failed to make contact with the outside world.
In a single county near the epicentre, 80pc of buildings had collapsed, 3,000-5,000 people had died and 10,000 had been injured. That means about one in ten in Beichuan county, from a population of 161,000, has been killed or injured.
The magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck at 2.28pm. Tremors rocked buildings in Beijing, sent ripples of fear through Bangkok and caused near-panic in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. Some skyscrapers in China's financial hub, Shanghai, swayed so violently that they had to be evacuated.
In Juyuan town in Dujiangyan city, just south of the epicentre, the middle school collapsed, burying 900 students and immediately killing four. "Some buried teenagers were struggling to break loose from underneath the ruins while others were crying out for help," state media said.
Locals used small mechanical winches or their bare hands to move concrete slabs. Rescuers had pulled 50 bodies from the debris.
Two girls said that they escaped because they had run faster than others.
"It was about 2.30pm and the building suddenly began to rock back and forth," one said.
A villager said that the school had 18 classes, with about 50 students in each class.
A hospital in the town also collapsed, burying hundreds more. Another seven schools had been felled by the quake.
In the town of Wenjiang one resident said: "People ran out of the buildings into open areas in panic. Houses of brick and wood have big cracks." Hundreds of people were buried in two collapsed chemical plants in Shifang in Sichuan.
About 6,000 people were evacuated while more than 80 tonnes of highly corrosive liquid ammonia leaked out.
Thousands of troops carrying medical supplies were on their way to the region. They were equipped with 5,000 tents to provide temporary shelters for those left homeless.
But their challenge was now to deliver the aid. A landslide had blocked a mountain road leading to Wenchuan, preventing troops from reaching the scene. Li Chongxi, a Communist Party official leading a rescue team but stuck 25 miles away in Dujiangyan, said: "The roads are blanketed with rocks and boulders."
Less than 70 miles northwest of Chengdu, a county with a large population of ethnic Tibetan and Qiang minority peoples, Wenchuan remained out of contact either by fixed line or mobile telephone.
A driver for the provincial seismological bureau described the earthquake as he was making his way through the mountainous region. "The road started swaying as I was driving. Rocks fell from the mountains, with dust darkening the sky over the valley," he said.
The extent of the tragedy was highlighted by Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister, who flew down to the quake zone to oversee relief operations.
In a sign of rare openness by China's leadership, which has frequently in the past tried to conceal the toll from natural disasters, he said: "This is an especially challenging task. In the face of the disaster, what's most important is calmness, confidence, courage and powerful command." © The Times, London
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