MIANYANG, China - The toll of the dead and missing soared as rescue workers dug through flattened schools and homes on Tuesday in a desperate attempt to find survivors of China's worst earthquake in three decades.
The official death toll climbed past 12,000 in Sichuan province, where emergency workers reached the epicenter of the massive quake as night fell. The number appeared certain to rise far higher as rescue and recovery efforts moved forward.
Soldiers who hiked past blocked roads located only 2,300 of the 9,000 people of Yinxiu, a town near the epicenter in Wenchuan county, state TV quoted local emergency official He Biao as saying. At least 500 people were confirmed dead in the country, the official Xinhua News Agency reported early Wednesday.
Xinhua News Agency said 18,645 people were still buried in debris in and around Mianyang, a city about 60 miles east of the epicenter. People there spent a second night sleeping outside in the rain, some under striped plastic sheeting strung between trees. The government ordered people not to return to their homes, citing safety concerns, and posted security guards outside apartment complexes to keep people out.
Few lights were on in the city of 700,000, and people ate and chatted by candlelight.
'My heart was so uneasy last night, I couldn't sleep,' said Wen Dajian, wrapped in a floral quilt lying on the rickshaw he uses to make a living hauling goods. 'I'm still so scared tonight. There's no place for me to go.'
The Sichuan Daily newspaper reported on its Web site that more than 26,000 people were injured in the Mianyang area.
Rescue teams brought people evacuated from the hard-hit town of Beichuan to Mianyang's sports stadium for food and shelter. Outside the railway station, police shouted in megaphones telling people where they could get free rice porridge.
Buses carrying survivors headed away from Beichuan, which was flattened by the quake. Footage on CCTV showed few buildings standing amid piles of rubble in a narrow valley. The six-story Beichuan Hotel sat listing, half its first story collapsed. Medical teams tried to treat the wounded in dirt courtyards littered with broken furniture and rubble.
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 two yards high, according to Xinhua. Xinhua said 80 percent of the buildings had collapsed in Beichuan alone.
At another leveled school in the town of Juyuan, 900 students were feared dead. As bodies of teenagers were carried out on doors used as makeshift stretchers, relatives lit incense and candles and also set off fireworks to ward away evil spirits.
There was little prospect that many survivors would be found under the rubble. Only 58 people were extricated from demolished buildings across the quake area so far, China Seismological Bureau spokesman Zhang Hongwei told Xinhua. In one county, 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed.
Rain was impeding efforts and a group of paratroopers called off a rescue mission to the epicenter due to heavy storms, Xinhua reported.
But officials urged the public not to give up hope.