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Melissa Block at a shattered school

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High Toll Feared as Earthquake Jars China

High Toll Feared as Earthquake Jars China

Melissa Block at a shattered school

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Early reports suggest nearly 9,000 people may have died in the aftermath of a 7.9-magnitude earthquake in China. It hit near Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan province.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

A province in Central China is reeling after a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Nearly 9,000 people are believed dead in Sichuan province alone. That's according to official Chinese news reports. It is the deadliest earthquake to hit China in three decades. It hit in the middle of the day at 2:28 pm - a time when people were at work, kids at school.

And my co-hosts, Melissa Block and Robert Siegel, were in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, when the quake hit. They were 60 miles southeast of the epicenter. Melissa and Robert just happened to be in China preparing for a weeklong series of stories for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. The series that's scheduled to begin next Monday.

Today, Melissa was in downtown Chengdu, in a church meeting room, conducting an interview.

Unidentified Man #1: My provisions to help my (unintelligible) or my pastors - to pastor the church or to grow in the church (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of noise)

MELISSA BLOCK: What's going on? The whole building is shaking. The whole building is shaking.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in Chinese)

(Soundbite of noise)

BLOCK: My goodness. Oh, my goodness, were in the middle of an earthquake. Earthquake (unintelligible). The top of the church is falling down. The ground is shaking underneath, I've seen it all. The people are running out in the street.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

BLOCK: As we're standing here, birds are flying. The ground is undulating under my feet.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

BLOCK: The cross on the top of the church is waving wildly and bricks are falling off of the ceiling - falling out of the roof. People are huddled together here on the street. The ground is still waving.

BLOCK: The shaking seems to be slowing down. We can still feel vibrations underneath. Somebody is running out on the street. There are crowds gathered. Somebody is naked.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in Chinese)

NORRIS: After the quake hit, Melissa traveled to one of the areas hardest hit by the quake. I talked with her afterwards.

BLOCK: Michele, I just left the Juyuan middle school, which is near the city of Dujiangyan, it's about 50 miles from the epicenter. The middle school was pretty much completely destroyed in this earthquake today. And there are dozens and dozens of bodies of middle school children that have been brought out. They have been laid on the ground without any covering until parents can identify them. And when they identify them, understandably, the parents collapse in waves of grief. The bodies are then wrapped in shrouds and brought under plastic sheeting. It's raining here. It's the middle of the night.

They're brought under plastic tarps. And the families have set up little altars. They're burning candles and lighting incense and burning paper money and some are setting off fire crackers to usher the children into the afterlife and to ward off evil spirits.

NORRIS: Oh, Melissa it sounds like it's so difficult to actually witness this and turn around and report on something you just saw.

BLOCK: It was just - it's a lot of kids. It was a big school and there are dozens and dozens, and they're bringing them out. Now, it's been a many, many hours after the earthquake. It's been up on 12 hours. They have a huge number of big cranes that have been brought it. It's the middle of the night but they're illuminated and they're trying to lift up these huge, huge pieces of masonry. And as they do, they are finding more and more victims.

I will say there's more - the one hopeful note is that there where lots and lots of ambulances there. And occasionally, in fact, we're driving on the highway now, behind an ambulance possibly with the students from that school, I don't know. But there were ambulances there and they were taking out some survivors. But mostly what I saw was victim upon victim upon victim of this school collapse. And I should tell you that right next door to the middle school was an elementary school that was perfectly intact.

NORRIS: Melissa, earlier in the day it was reported that rescuers are having a very hard time getting in to the epicenter, it sounds like relief and the rescue effort is able to get in to that area now.

BLOCK: Well, we did hear some complaints that when the Army first arrived, they didn't have the equipment. The equipment is there now, and keep in mind, we're still 50 miles away from the epicenter. This was a middle school that was destroyed. We heard about a hospital nearby that was also destroyed. Our co-host, Robert Siegel was at that hospital. He'll be reporting on the scene there. So, you can just imagine in places where the devastation will be extensive. I mean, everywhere around this school, there were buildings that's still standing. This school, from whatever reason, shoddy construction, bad luck - whatever it was - this school took a huge, huge hit and many, many children died there today.

NORRIS: In the area where you're at now, have you been - have you felt aftershocks there? And since it's in the middle of the night, are people back indoors? Or are they sleeping out on the streets under tents?

BLOCK: I haven't felt any aftershock, although I know, there have been many and they have been fairly substantial. People have been outdoors, all the way up on the main road - the big highway up to this area. We saw people outside, in their cars, along side the road. I saw a lot of people playing cards to pass the time - playing card games. It is now raining and I have not yet seen where these people have gone. I don't think there's much incentive for anyone to go back inside. Where w we're just now in the village, people were huddled under tarpaulins. People had set up tents. They had brought out umbrellas. And they were waiting through the night. And again at this school, there were hundreds and hundreds of families who did not know the fate of their children, were not getting good information, and we're just in this desperate for waiting game to see if their child has survived.

NORRIS: Melissa, outside of the school, where you able to travel at all in the area? Are there any other parts of the city or the region that you are able to get to?

BLOCK: We went to the school. We spent as much time there as we could. We were surrounded by an angry mob and police. And we were forced to leave the scene. And that was what we saw in the time that we were there.

NORRIS: Melissa, the mob that you describe, that surrounded you, why were they angry at you? Why was that anger targeted towards you?

BLOCK: Well, we had a microphone and a camera. The first people to approached us were in uniform and they grabbed us by our arms and pulled us away. And as that scene became obvious, other people gathered and we've been - it's understandable that tensions are extremely high, these are people in extreme amount of pain and anxiety. And we heard the sentiment that these people are grieving, leave them alone. We did find a number of people who wanted to talk to us, who are very upset, obviously, and upset by their lack of information that they were being given and did not mind talking to us at all. And we certainly didn't approach grieving family members, you know. There's a strong police presence and a strong military presence and we were escorted out very quickly.

NORRIS: Melissa, please stay safe. And I know we'll be speaking to you again and soon.

BLOCK: Okay. Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That my co-host, Melissa Block. She's now back in Chengdu. And she and Robert Siegel will continue to report on the latest from Sichuan province. Now, we're also following the story at our blog. That's where you can find the photographs and eyewitness accounts. You can find that at npr.org/chinadiary.

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Thousands Feared Dead as Earthquake Hits China

Melissa Block at a shattered school

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Robert Siegel at a crowded hospital

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A Quake's Arrival

Melissa Block was in the process of recording an interview when Monday's earthquake hit. She then fled the building and reported on the scene in the city's streets.

The sound of the earthquake in progress, recorded by Melissa Block

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Later, she headed to the scene of a collapsed middle school where children had been pulled from the rubble.

Melissa Block at Juyuan Middle School

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Map of the earthquake's reach i

Map of the earthquake's reach. Alice Kreit/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Alice Kreit/NPR
Map of the earthquake's reach

The earthquake was felt as far away as Laos and Vietnam.

Alice Kreit/NPR

A Look at Chengdu

Residents fled buildings for the sidewalks of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. i

Residents fled buildings for the sidewalks of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
Residents fled buildings for the sidewalks of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.

Residents fled buildings for the sidewalks of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.

Andrea Hsu/NPR

Relief efforts were underway Tuesday, a day after a powerful earthquake struck central China, killing as many as 12,000 people, officials said.

The magnitude 7.9 quake was felt as far away as Vietnam and Thailand. It appears to be the most devastating earthquake to hit China in more than three decades.

At a news conference Tuesday, China's disaster response director, Wang Zhengyao, said that 11,921 people have died so far from the quake centered in Sichuan province. The death toll from the quake is expected to rise even higher, with state media saying thousands are still trapped in collapsed buildings.

Approximately 80 percent of the buildings in Sichuan's Beichuan County were flattened in the quake, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday. A chemical plant in Shifang city also was destroyed, burying hundreds of people and spilling tons of toxic liquid ammonia.

Outside the city of Dujiangyan, at least 50 students were killed and 900 trapped after the three-story Juyuan Middle School collapsed. Buried teenagers could be seen struggling to break loose from under the rubble of the three-story building, while others cried out for help.

There were reports that army-led rescue workers had difficulty accessing the disaster area and were hampered by a lack of equipment. But large cranes outfitted with lights operated into the night to lift massive slabs of masonry, said NPR's Melissa Block, who was at the scene. Ambulances ferried away the survivors.

Dozens of bodies of children were laid out on the ground, waiting for parents to identify them, Block said. Once claimed, the bodies were wrapped in shrouds and brought under plastic tarps. Hundreds of parents waited for hours in the rain for word of their children.

Parents built makeshift shrines and placed the bodies of the dead on pieces of cardboard or plywood as they grieved over the small lifeless forms. Some lighted red candles or burned paper money to send children into the afterlife. Others set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. The grim ritual played out by dozens and dozens of families as they kept watch over their babies one last time.

Students also were buried under five other toppled schools in Deyang city.

The earthquake struck in the middle of the day, around 2:28 p.m. local time. People flooded into the streets as the ground shook, and many were trapped in collapsed buildings.

One man said he felt the road start to buckle when the earthquake began.

"The road started swaying as I was driving. Rocks fell from the mountains, with dust darkening the sky over the valley," a driver for Sichuan's seismological bureau told Xinhua.

Two girls were quoted as saying they escaped because they had "run faster than others."

In Dujiangyan, 45 miles north of Chengdu, a hospital collapsed with an estimated 100 people, NPR's Robert Siegel reported. Crane crews worked to rescue those trapped. Tents at a Red Cross center were set up to tend to the wounded as they waited for ambulances to take them to other hospitals.

The earthquake crashed telephone networks in Chengdu and plunged parts of the city of 11 million into darkness. Residents slept outside in cars or fled to the suburbs — far from the city's high rises — as more than 300 aftershocks rattled the area throughout the day, according to state-run media.

The devastation comes as China is preparing to host the Olympic Games, which begin in Beijing on Aug. 8.

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