State media reports that the death toll from a powerful earthquake in central China has climbed to nearly 10,000 in the worst-hit province. The 7.9-magnitude quake Monday devastated a region of small cities and towns in an area of Sichuan province north of the capital of Chengdu. The official Xinhua News Agency said about 600 people died in Shifang City, which was the site of a major chemical leak. The report did not say whether people were killed by the quake or the chemical leak. Xinhua said as many as 2,300 people in the city are still buried under rubble, including more than 900 students. Landslides have blocked roads into the hardest-hit areas, and rescue workers were headed there on foot.
It was the middle of the afternoon, one of the worst possible times for the powerful earthquake to strike. For nearly three agonizing minutes, the quake shook the region of small cities and towns set amid steep hills north of Sichuan's provincial capital of Chengdu. It emptied office buildings about 900 miles away in Beijing and could be felt as far away as Vietnam.
State media and photos posted on the Internet underscored the immense scale of the devastation. At least 50 students died in the high school in Juyuan, south of the epicenter, Xinhua said. Photos showed people using cranes, mechanical hoists and their hands to remove slabs of concrete and steel. Buried teenagers struggling to break free from the rubble, "while others were crying out for help," the official Xinhua news agency said. Families waited in the rain near the wreckage as rescuers wrote the names of the dead on a blackboard, Xinhua said.
Parents of the dead students built makeshift religious altars at the site, resting the corpse on any available piece of plywood or cardboard, and burning paper money and incense in a traditional honor for their child in the afterlife. The earthquake hit one of the last homes of the giant panda at the Wolong Nature Reserve and panda breeding center, in Wenchuan county, which remained out of contact, Xinhua said. In Chengdu, it crashed telephone networks and hours later left parts of the city of 10 million in darkness.
"We can't get to sleep. We're afraid of the earthquake. We're afraid of all the shaking," said 52-year-old factory worker Huang Ju, who took her ailing, elderly mother out of the Jinjiang District People's Hospital. Outside, Huang sat in a wheelchair wrapped in blankets while her mother, who was ill, slept in a hospital bed next to her.
Xinhua reported 8,533 people died in Sichuan alone and 216 others in three other provinces and the mega-city of Chongqing. Worst affected were four counties including the quake's epicenter in Wenchuan, 60 miles northwest of Chengdu. Landslides left roads impassable Tuesday, causing the government to order soldiers into the area on foot, state television said, and heavy rain prevented four military helicopters from landing.