When the earthquake hit on Monday afternoon Yang Xueqin’s class was on the sports field.
“My class was the lucky one. Most of the others were inside and we watched the main school building falling down,” Ms Yang, 14, said yesterday as she returned to Juyuan middle school in the city of Dujiangyan, where hundreds of school children were buried in the tremor.
By yesterday afternoon, devastated parents and soldiers had turned the school sports field into a quagmire as they worked through the night to dig hundreds of children out of the rubble.
Scattered through the mud in tents or just wrapped in plastic tarpaulins were the bodies of dozens of 13-15 year olds surrounded by their wailing relatives and a thick pall of smoke from incense and burnt replica bank notes for the children to use in the afterlife.
Every so often the crackle of fireworks signalled another body had been found and the wailing began again.
By late last night, the official quake death toll was 11,921, according to state media, but that number is likely to rise as relief workers reported thousands more still missing. Authorities said as many as 10,000 people remained unaccounted for in just one of the cities near the epicentre, Mianzhu.
The quake is the most deadly in China since 1976, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, according to the United States Geological Survey.
The disaster has received wall-to-wall coverage on Chinese state television, and news websites have published extensive images caught on mobile phones by members of the public.
But with roads to several of the most affected towns still cut off, the extent of the disaster remains unclear.
In Dujiangyan, two rows of soldiers and police held distraught parents back from the site of the collapse, where scores of soldiers sifted through rubble looking for more of the estimated 900 children buried in the rubble.
Each time a child’s body emerged, four soldiers covered the face with cloth and carried it on broken doors or other makeshift stretchers down a human corridor of panicking relatives and deposited it in the mud for the family to claim.
“I can’t take this,” said one soldier as he hurried away from a corpse and back to the rubble.
Witnesses said rescuers had packed dozens of bodies found earlier into trucks and taken them away.
In the middle of the field a large pile of unused medical supplies was steadily trampled into the mud as hope of finding any children alive dwindled and waiting parents became increasingly agitated.
“We’ve been waiting for 24 hours. Why does it take you so long?” shouted one angry mother. “Why won’t you give us any information?”
A number of school-collapses occurred across the quake-stricken region, including in the city of Mianyang, about 160km northeast of the epicentre, where 1,000 students were dead or missing, according to state media.
Yet there were some moments of relief and hope yesterday.
While searching a damaged apartment block, rescue teams found an unhurt pregnant woman wedged in a second floor apartment and were working in shifts to dig her out before the building collapsed completely.