High Toll Feared as Earthquake Jars China 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.
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Melissa Block at a shattered school

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High Toll Feared as Earthquake Jars China

Melissa Block at a shattered school

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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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