China Death Toll Climbs to 20,000

WENCHUAN, China -- The death toll from China's massive earthquake rose to at least 20,000 on Thursday, as rescuers struggled to help survivors and hopes faded for a further 25,000 buried under rubble for more than three days.

The Communist Party leadership told officials to "ensure social stability" as Monday's 7.9-magnitude quake spawned rumors of chemical spills, fears of dam bursts and scenes of collective desperation.

About 130,000 army and paramilitary troops assisted the search and rescue effort in the worst affected Sichuan province, sifting through dozens of towns turned to rubble.

Rescuers in the city of Dujiangyan wrapped corpses dragged from the rubble in tarpaulins and sped them to morgues. They were so busy that a notice outside one collapsed school asked parents to search for missing children in shifts.

Three days after the quake, hopes of pulling survivors from the ruins dimmed, and the waves of rescuers appear to be hampered by lack of specialized equipment.

But there were moments of joy and relief. "Thank you, thank you," one 22-year-old said after she was eventually pulled to safety, covering her face against the light in Dujiangyan. She had been trapped, unhurt but unable to move, under the ruins of a hospital.

Xinhua news agency quoted the government in the mountainous southwestern province of Sichuan as saying the death toll there had risen to more than 19,500. With hundreds of deaths in neighboring provinces, the overall toll is at least 20,000.