Earthquake in China: "They were trapped in the rubble, crying out for help"

'HANG on a bit longer. The troops are rescuing you." That is what the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, shouted to people buried under a hospital in Dujiangyan city, as the country's second most powerful man took to the streets to reassure his stricken people that help was on the way.

As the full extent of yesterday's huge earthquake dawned on the authorities, Mr Wen was dispatched from Beijing to the disaster zone around the city of Chengdu to let them know that the state was coming.

Outside another collapsed building, a school in Juyuan, he urged front-line workers to multiply their efforts "by 100, as long as there was a slightest hope" of rescuing its 900 pupils.

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Xinhua, the state news agency, said: "Some buried teenagers were struggling to break loose from underneath the ruins, while others were crying out for help."

Later, after visiting the disaster relief headquarters an as the death toll rose to nearly 10,000, he admitted: "The situation is worse than we previously estimated and we need more people here to help."

Villagers used their bare hands to wrestle with rubble as cranes picked through the remains of the three-storey building and ambulances waited for casualties. A tearful mother said her son was buried in the ruins, while two girls said they had escaped because they had "run faster than others". Late last night around 50 bodies had been recovered from the rubble.

Gao Shangyuan, who lives close to the school and helped the rescue work, said: "Some had jumped out of the window and a few others ran down the stairs that did not collapse."

Juyuan is some 60 miles from the epicentre of the earthquake that devastated the Sichuan province of China. The quake hit a region of small cities and towns set amid steep hills north-east of Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, at 2:30pm local time yesterday and lasted about three minutes.

It struck at the worst time of day – most people were in offices, schools and factories.

State media said some 80 per cent of the buildings in one county of Sichuan have collapsed, including a hospital.

And hundreds of people were buried in two collapsed chemical plants,it was reported. Xinhua said about 6,000 people were evacuated and more than 80 tonnes of liquid ammonia had leaked.

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Shockwaves from the 7.9-magnitude quake rattled buildings in Beijing, 930 miles to the north-east, causing offices to be evacuated.

People ran screaming into the streets in other cities, where many residents said they had never felt an earthquake before. Tremors were also experienced in Vietnam, Thailand and Pakistan, up to 2,000 miles away. There were no fewer than 313 aftershocks.

Seismologists said the quake was so widespread because it happened so deep undergound – six miles down.

As many as 10,000 people were injured and hundreds of children remained trapped in at least eight collapsed schools.

More than 20,000 soldiers and police were rushed into Sichuan to help in the disaster relief.

More than 150 people were killed in the other provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi, and in Chongqing municipality, Xinhua said. And the death toll is likely to rise once the damage in Wenchuan county - the epicentre - is assessed.

Landslides had left some roads impassable, with the government ordering soldiers into the area on foot, while heavy rain prevented military helicopters from landing.

"We are doing everything we can, but the roads are blanketed with rocks and boulders," said Li Chongxi, Sichuan's deputy Communist party chief.

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

Nervous Chengdu residents spent the night outside or headed to the suburbs. Ronen Medzini, an Israeli student in the city, said in a text message to friends: "Traffic jams, no running water, power-outs, everyone sitting in the streets, patients evacuated from hospitals sitting outside."

Meanwhile, Huang Ju, 52, who took her ailing, elderly mother out of the Jinjiang District People's Hospital, said: "We can't get to sleep. We're afraid of the earthquake. We're afraid of all the shaking."

Outside the hospital, she sat in a wheelchair wrapped in blankets as her mother slept in a hospital bed next to her.

State television bizarrely broadcast tips for anyone trapped: "If you're buried, keep calm and conserve your energy. Seek water and food and wait patiently for rescue."

Dale Rutstein, of the charity Unicef China, said: "I would expect the death toll to rise, as Sichuan is one of the most populated provinces and one of the poorest.

"There are a lot of people living in marginal areas that are difficult to get to, and a lot of the buildings in those areas are substandard and could collapse very quickly."

In Beijing, where hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors are expected for the Olympics, which start on 8 August, venues for the Games were said to be undamaged.

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Li Jiulin, a senior engineer on the 91,000-seat National Stadium – known as the Bird's Nest and the jewel of the Olympics – was conducting an inspection at the venue when the quake occurred. He told reporters the building was designed to withstand an 8.0-magnitude quake.

Xinhua also said there was no immediate impact on the Three Gorges Dam project. The weight of its massive reservoir, which is a few hundred kilometres from Chengdu, could increase the risk of tremors, according to experts.

The quake was one of the worst 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.

The epicentre was in the mountains of the eastern rim of Qing-Tibet Plateau at the north-west side of the Sichuan Basin. It occurred as a result of motion on a fault that runs along the margin of the basin.

The quake appeared to be the deadliest since the most devastating in modern history, which killed 240,000 people in the city of Tangshan, near Beijing, in 1976.