A magnitude 7.9 earthquake rocked China from mountains to coast Monday, knocking down schools, homes and chemical plants and killing thousands of people, many of them children trapped in their classrooms.
As of daybreak today in China, the death toll stood at 10,000, with most of the victims in south-central China’s Sichuan province, where the quake was centered 60 miles northwest of the provincial capital, Chengdu.
More than 1,000 rescue workers slogged on foot through mud and landslides all night to reach the mountainous epicenter. All roads in had been destroyed or seriously damaged. Tanks were also employed to navigate the difficult terrain. Helicopters were turned back because of bad weather.
The quake was so powerful that it was felt hundreds of miles away, from Beijing to Bangkok. It forced the evacuation of China’s tallest building, Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower, and sent high-rise workers around the country scurrying for safety.
China instituted tight controls on information about the disaster, setting up checkpoints to try to bar Chinese and foreign correspondents from the most severely affected areas.
At least eight schools collapsed, according to Chinese news agencies, resulting in the deaths of children and teachers.
A dramatic rescue effort was mounted Monday in Dujiangyan city, near the epicenter, where a middle school collapsed and trapped 900 teenagers under the rubble. Some children were rescued.
But by today, most of the students being brought out were dead. Dozens of bodies lay in makeshift shelters, with a chain of security guards, arms locked, holding back a desperate, pushing crowd that hoped to catch a glimpse of a familiar piece of clothing as every few minutes another victim was carried from the shattered schoolhouse.
The quake took place at 2:28 p.m. local time Monday. Across China, millions of people felt what many described as a sensation of being blind drunk, wobbling on their feet, and then the terror of realizing what was happening.
“Lots of people were running; the whole community was terrified,” said Liu Zho, a 22-year-old student from Chongqing, about 200 miles from the epicenter. “People were very scared, you could tell [by] the way people were acting. All communications were cut or overloaded almost immediately with everyone busy trying to make calls.”
At least 50 people were killed in Chongqing, among them five children whose school collapsed.
Zhao Cunfu, a teacher at the Lirang Village Elementary School in Chongqing, said by telephone that he was sitting in his office when he suddenly felt dizzy. Stumbling into the hallway, he found a crowd of first-graders crying and frantic.
“The children panicked. They were pushing one another. They were very small. It was easy for them to get hurt,” Zhao said. A dormitory at the school collapsed and many classrooms were damaged.
In Chengdu, a city of 11 million, witnesses described mass panic when the quake hit.
“Cars were bouncing along the street. Everyone came rushing out of their buildings,” said Chris Fay, a British bar owner, in a telephone interview over the howl of sirens in the background.
“It lasted a long time, maybe four or five minutes,” said Daisy Cang, a bookstore employee in Chengdu, who said she was alerted to the quake when the beer cans stacked in her refrigerator toppled over.
Fearful of aftershocks, residents poured into the streets. Chinese state television showed footage of office workers with their laptops at an outdoor cafe, while others lounged around the flower beds, appearing to enjoy a rare break on a spring day.
But the government-run television showed none of the more gruesome scenes from the earthquake, and glimpses of the devastation came only from short items offered by the official news agencies.
Overnight, many camped out in parks and on the street for fear that aftershocks could knock down more buildings.
It was reported that two chemical plants collapsed in Shifang, northeast of the epicenter. One of them spilled 80 tons of toxic ammonia. The death toll in the town was reported at 600, with hundreds more trapped in the rubble.
In Dujiangyan city, where the middle school collapsed, photographs circulated on Internet news sites showed limbs poking out of the wreckage. As crews using construction cranes tried to lift slabs from the upper floors that had pancaked onto lower floors, horrified parents stood calling out to their children, many of them eighth- and ninth-graders. The official New China News Agency described children crying for help while workers wrote the names of the confirmed dead on a blackboard. Chinese children undergo intensive earthquake training, but it is unclear how many managed to escape.
“Some had jumped out of the window and a few others ran down the stairs that did not collapse,” Gao Shangyuan, a volunteer rescue worker at the school, was quoted as telling the news agency.
A few blocks from the school, in the area dubbed a “top tourist city of China,” small buildings were collapsed, vehicles were smashed and people with bloodied heads walked aimlessly.
Concrete chunks of the Yinqiao Hotel, some 1980s architect’s version of a ship with glass sails, lay separated and twisted as though part of its rigging had been torn off in a bad storm.
On both sides of the street, lined with people walking in heavy rain, were tents and temporary shelters. Dazed people stood and stared as sirens wailed in the badly jammed traffic, so congested that even bicycles couldn’t wedge their way between the cars.
Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist by training, called the earthquake a “major geological disaster.”
After flying to the earthquake zone, he was quoted by the Chinese news services as saying: “The disaster was more serious than predicted. The rescue sites are very complex.”
The Chinese government’s handling of the earthquake will be crucial in a sensitive year marked by crisis. Freak snowstorms paralyzed much of the southern part of the country during the lunar New Year, and Tibetan protests have brought China heaps of international criticism and marred the relay of the Olympic torch to Beijing. The Summer Olympics open in Beijing in August.
Olympic officials said there was no damage to any of the Olympic venues in Beijing, nearly 1,000 miles from the epicenter. Another source of concern, the Three Gorges Dam, a massive structure 400 miles to the east, also was reported to have escaped unscathed.
It has been difficult to get information from the epicenter of the earthquake because of the damage to mountain roads and telephone lines. Deng Changwen, vice director of the Sichuan bureau of telecommunications, told Chinese television that there had been a “total failure” of the communications network.
Sichuan officials said that in hard-hit Beichuan County, 80% of the buildings were reported collapsed. The area is mountainous and remote. It is best known for the Wolong Nature Reserve, the largest breeding ground of captive pandas in China.
The epicenter was in part of what is called the Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. The small town of Aba within the prefecture in particular has been a hotbed of unrest with Buddhist monks marching against Chinese rule since mid-March.
Large numbers of troops from the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force, are already deployed in the area as a result of the protests, and they are expected now to contribute to the earthquake effort.
An additional 5,000 troops and a 180-person team from the national earthquake center also were dispatched.
Magnier reported from Chongqing and Demick from Beijing. Wu Yixiu of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.