Bodies covered with sheets lined streets yesterday as rescue workers dug through schools and homes turned into rubble by China's worst earthquake in three decades in a desperate attempt to rescue victims trapped under concrete slabs.
The official death toll rose to more than 12,000 in Sichuan Province alone, with thousands remained buried or missing.
But hope that many survivors would be found was fleeting. Only 58 people were extricated from demolished buildings across the quake area so far, a China Seismological Bureau spokesman told the official Xinhua news agency. In one county, 80 percent of the buildings had been destroyed.
"Survivors can hold on for some time. It's not time to give up," Wang Zhenyao (王振耀), disaster relief division director at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told reporters in Beijing.
A day after the powerful 7.9 magnitude quake struck on Monday afternoon, state media said rescue workers had reached the epicenter in Wenchuan County — where the number of casualties was still unknown.
The quake was centered just north of the Sichuan provincial capital, Chengdu, tearing into urban areas and mountain villages.
The initial tremor, which the US Geological Survey upgraded to magnitude 7.9 from 7.8, was followed by a series of aftershocks, which shook the area through the night.
Rain was impeding efforts and a group of paratroopers called off a rescue mission to the epicenter because of heavy storms, Xinhua reported.
While Wang gave the death toll as 11,921, Xinhua later said more than that had been killed in Sichuan alone.
In Mianyang City alone near the epicenter, 3,629 people were dead and 18,645 were still buried in debris, Xinhua reported.
At least 4,800 people also remained buried in Mianzhu, 100km from the epicenter, Xinhua said, citing local authorities.
Difficulties in accessing some areas meant the numbers of casualties remained uncertain and were expected to rise due to problems in finding buried victims.
More than two dozen British and US tourists who were thought to be panda-watching in the area also remained missing.
Earthquake rescue experts in orange jumpsuits extricated bloody survivors on stretchers from demolished buildings.
Some 20,000 soldiers and police arrived in the disaster area with 30,000 more on the way by plane, train, trucks and even on foot, the defense ministry told Xinhua.
Aftershocks rattled the region for a second day, sending people running into the streets in Chengdu.
The US Geological Survey measured the shocks between magnitude 4 and 6, some of the strongest since Monday's quake.
Zhou Chun, a 70-year-old retired mechanic, was leaving Dujiangyan with a soiled light blue blanket draped over his shoulders.
"My wife died in the quake. My house was destroyed," 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 six-story building reduced to a pile of rubble about 2m high, Xinhua reported.
Xinhua said up to 5,000 people were killed and 80 percent of the buildings had collapsed in Beichuan alone.
The deaths were separate from another leveled school in Dujiangyan where 900 students were feared dead. As bodies of teenagers were carried out on doors used as makeshift stretchers, relatives lit incense and candles and set off fireworks to ward off evil spirits.