Earthquake Death Toll Exceeds 12,000

DUJIANGYAN, China -- Rescue workers sifted through tangled debris of toppled schools and homes Tuesday for thousands of victims buried or missing after China's worst earthquake in three decades, where the death toll soared to more than 12,000 people in the hardest-hit province alone.

As night fell the day after the powerful 7.9-magnitude quake tore through urban areas and mountain villages across central China, state media said rescue workers had reached the epicenter in Wenchuan county, north of the Sichuan provincial capital, Chengdu.

State television quoted He Biao, director of the emergency office of the Aba government, as saying initial reports from soldiers, who had to hike in, showed that there may be only 2,300 survivors from a population of 9,000 in Yinxiu, one of the affected towns.

The roads and bridges to another town in Wenchuan were all destroyed by the earthquake, and up to 80 percent of the homes had collapsed. There was also no power in the county, he said.

The death-toll figures were expected to jump sharply as rescuers worked their way through hard-hit towns at the epicenter.

In a massive government relief operation, some 20,000 soldiers and police arrived in the disaster area with 30,000 more on the way by plane, train, truck and on foot, the Defense Ministry told Xinhua. Rescue experts in orange jumpsuits extricated bloody survivors on stretchers from demolished buildings.

"Survivors can hold on for some time. Now, it's not time to give up," Wang Zhenyao, disaster-relief division director at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told reporters in Beijing.

Xinhua said more than 12,000 had died in Sichuan province alone, but difficulties in accessing some areas meant that the total number of casualties remained uncertain. In counties around one city near the epicenter, 18,645 people were buried, the agency said.

More than two-dozen British and American tourists, who were thought to be panda watching in the area, also remained missing.

Zhou Chun, a 70-year-old retired mechanic, was leaving quake-hit Dujiangyan city with a soiled, light blue blanket draped over his shoulders.

"My wife died in the quake," he said. "I am going to Chengdu, but I don't know where I'll live."

Zhou and other survivors were pulling luggage and clutching plastic bags of food amid a steady drizzle and the constant wail of ambulances.

Just east of the epicenter, 1,000 students and teachers were killed or missing at a collapsed high school in Beichuan county -- a more than six-story building reduced to a pile of rubble about 2 meters high, according to Xinhua. The agency said up to 5,000 people were killed and 80 percent of the buildings had collapsed in Beichuan alone.

At another leveled school in Dujiangyan, 900 students were feared dead. As bodies of teenagers were carried out on doors used as makeshift stretchers, relatives lit candles and also set off fireworks to ward away evil spirits.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who rushed to the area to oversee rescue efforts, said a push was on to clear roads and restore electricity as soon as possible. His visit to the disaster scene was prominently featured on state TV, a gesture meant to reassure people that the Communist Party was doing all it could.

"We will save the people," Wen said through a bullhorn to survivors as he toured the disaster scene, in footage shown on CCTV. "As long as the people are there, factories can be built into even better ones and so can the towns and counties."