CHONGQING, China (AP) -- One of the worst earthquakes in decades struck central China on Monday, killing nearly 9,000 people, trapping about 900 students under the rubble of their school and causing a toxic chemical leak, state media reported.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated a hilly region of small cities and towns. The official Xinhua News Agency said 8,533 people died in Sichuan province and more than 200 others were killed in three other provinces and the mega-city of Chongqing.
Xinhua said 80 percent of the buildings had collapsed in Sichuan province's Beichuan county after the quake, raising fears the overall death toll could increase sharply.
State media said a chemical plant in Shifang city had cratered, burying hundreds of people and spilling more than 80 tons of toxic liquid ammonia from the site.
The earthquake sent thousands of people rushing out of buildings and into the streets hundreds of miles away in Beijing and Shanghai. The temblor was felt as far away as Vietnam and Thailand.
It posed a challenge to a government already grappling with discontent over high inflation and a widespread uprising among Tibetans in western China while trying to prepare for the Beijing Olympics this August.
The quake hit about 60 miles northwest of Chengdu - a city of 3.75 million - in the middle of the afternoon when classrooms and office towers were full. There were several smaller aftershocks, the U.S. Geological Survey said on its Web site.
About 1,200 pandas - 80 percent of the surviving wild population in China - live in several mountainous areas of Sichuan.
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.
The Wolong PandaCam, a live online video feed showing the activities of the pandas at the nature reserve, stopped showing footage of the animals late Sunday night.
The earthquake, China's deadliest since 1976, occurred in an area with numerous fault lines that have triggered destructive temblors before. A magnitude 7.5 earthquake in Diexi, Sichuan that hit on August 25, 1933 killed more than 9,300 people.
Xinhua said 50 bodies had been pulled from the debris of the school building in Juyuan town but did not say if the children were alive. Students also were buried under five other toppled schools in Deyang city, Xinhua reported.
Its reporters saw buried teenagers struggling to break loose from underneath the rubble of the three-story building in Juyuan "while others were crying out for help." Two girls were quoted by Xinhua as saying they escaped because they had "run faster than others."
Photos showed heavy cranes trying to remove rubble from the ruined school. Other photos posted on the Internet and found on the Chinese search engine Baidu showed arms and a torso sticking out of the rubble of the school as dozens of people worked to free them, using their hands to move concrete slabs.
Calls into the city did not go through as panicked residents quickly overloaded the telephone system and the quake also affected power networks.
Although it was difficult to telephone Chengdu, an Israeli student, Ronen Medzini, sent a text message to The Associated Press saying there were power and water outages there.
"Traffic jams, no running water, power outs, everyone sitting in the streets, patients evacuated from hospitals sitting outside and waiting," he said.
The road to Wenchuan from Chendu was cut off by landslides, state media said, slowing the rescue efforts.
Though news trickled out in the first hours after the quake, the government and its media quickly mobilized, with nearly 8,000 soldiers and police sent to the area. China Central Television ran non-stop coverage, with phone reports from reporters and a few isolated camera shots from the scene.
Disasters always pose a test to the communist government, whose mandate in part rests on providing relief to those in need. In recent years, the government has improved emergency planning and rapid response training for the military.
The earthquake also rattled buildings in Beijing, some 930 miles to the north, less than three months before the Chinese capital was expected to be full of hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors for the Summer Olympics.
Li Jiulin, a top engineer on the 91,000-seat National Stadium - known as the Bird's Nest and the jewel of the Olympics - was conducting an inspection at the venue when the quake occurred. He told reporters the building was designed to withstand a 8.0 quake.
"The Olympic venues were not affected by the earthquake," said Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee.
Skyscrapers swayed in Shanghai and in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, 100 miles off the southeastern Chinese coast. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.
The quake was felt as far away as the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, where some people hurried out of swaying office buildings and into the streets downtown. A building in the Thai capital of Bangkok also was evacuated after the quake was felt there.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake is considered a major event, capable of causing widespread damage and injuries in populated areas.
The last serious earthquake in China was in 2003, when a 6.8-magnitude quake killed 268 people in Bachu county in the west of Xinjiang.
China's deadliest earthquake in modern history struck the northeastern city of Tangshan on July 28, 1976, killing 240,000 people.
© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.