By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN,
Associated Press Writer
CHONGQING - A massive earthquake struck central China on Monday, killing more than 7,600 people and trapping nearly 900 students under the rubble of their school, state media reported.
The official Xinhua News Agency said 80 percent of the buildings had collapsed in Beichuan county in Sichuan province after the 7.8-magnitude quake, raising fears the overall death toll could increase sharply.
The earthquake sent thousands of people rushing out of buildings and into the streets hundreds of miles away in Beijing and Shanghai. The temblor was felt as far away as Pakistan, Vietnam and Thailand.
Xinhua cited the Sichuan provincial government as saying 7,651 people died. The communist leadership said late Monday that "thousands" had died, and that the quake also had caused deaths in three other provinces.
The quake was one of the deadliest in three decades and posed a challenge to a government already grappling with discontent over high inflation and a widespread uprising among Tibetans in western China while trying to prepare for the Beijing Olympics this August.
It hit about 60 miles northwest of Chengdu in the middle of the afternoon when classrooms and office towers were full. There were several smaller aftershocks, the U.S. Geological Survey said on its Web site.
The temblor struck hilly country leading up to the Tibetan highlands, toppling buildings in small cities and towns in the largely rural area. About 1,200 pandas — 80 percent of the surviving wild population in China — live in several mountainous areas of Sichuan.
The earthquake occurred in an area with numerous fault lines that have triggered destructive temblor before. A magnitude 7.5 earthquake in Diexi, Sichuan that hit on August 25, 1933 killed more than 9,300 people.
Xinhua said 50 bodies had been pulled from the debris of the school building in Juyuan town but did not say if the children were alive. Xinhua reported students also were buried under five other toppled schools in Deyang city.
Xinhua said its reporters saw buried teenagers struggling to break loose from underneath the rubble of the three-story building in Juyuan "while others were crying out for help."
Two girls were quoted by Xinhua as saying they escaped because they had "run faster than others."
Photos showed heavy cranes trying to remove rubble from the ruined school. Other photos posted on the Internet and found on the Chinese search engine Baidu showed arms and a torso sticking out of the rubble of the school as dozens of people worked to free them, using their hands to move concrete slabs.
Calls into the city did not go through as panicked residents quickly overloaded the telephone system. The quake affected telephone and power networks, and even state media appeared to have few details of the disaster.
"In Chengdu, mobile telecommunication convertors have experienced jams and thousands of servers were out of service," said Sha Yuejia, deputy chief executive officer of China Mobile.
Although it was difficult to telephone Chengdu, an Israeli student, Ronen Medzini, sent a text message to The Associated Press saying there were power and water outages there.
"Traffic jams, no running water, power outs, everyone sitting in the streets, patients evacuated from hospitals sitting outside and waiting," he said.
Xinhua said an underground water pipe ruptured near the city's southern railway station, flooding a main thoroughfare. Reporters saw buildings with cracks in their walls but no collapses, Xinhua said.
The earthquake also rattled buildings in Beijing, some 930 miles to the north, less than three months before the Chinese capital was expected to be full of hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors for the Summer Olympics.
Many Beijing office towers were evacuated, including the building housing the media offices for the organizers of the Olympics, which start in August. None of the Olympic venues was damaged.
"I've lived in Taipei and California and I've been through quakes before. This is the most I've ever felt," said James McGregor, a business consultant who was inside the LG Towers in Beijing's business district. "The floor was moving underneath me."
In Fuyang, 660 miles to the east, chandeliers in the lobby of the Buckingham Palace Hotel swayed. "We've never felt anything like this our whole lives," said a hotel employee surnamed Zhu.
Patients at the Fuyang People's No. 1 Hospital were evacuated. An hour after the quake, a half-dozen patients in blue-striped pajamas stood outside the hospital. One was laying on a hospital bed in the parking lot.
Skyscrapers in Shanghai swayed and most office occupants went rushing into the streets.
In the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, 100 miles off the southeastern Chinese coast, buildings swayed when the quake hit. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.
The quake was felt as far away as the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, where some people hurried out of swaying office buildings and into the streets downtown. A building in the Thai capital of Bangkok also was evacuated after the quake was felt there.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake is considered a major event, capable of causing widespread damage and injuries in populated areas.
The last serious earthquake in China was in 2003, when a 6.8-magnitude quake killed 268 people in Bachu county in the west of Xinjiang.
China's deadliest earthquake in modern history struck the northeastern city of Tangshan on July 28, 1976, killing 240,000 people.