As many as 8,500 people have been killed by an earthquake measuring 7.8 in one county of Sichuan province in southwestern China, reports say. Some 10,000 people are also feared to have been injured in Beichuan county.
There are also thought to be almost 900 students buried beneath the rubble of a middle school. The three-story school building had partially collapsed in Dujiangyan city, and parents watched as cranes attempted to free the trapped students.
China's State Seismological Bureau reported the magnitude 7.8 quake was centered about 90 km northwest of Sichuan's provincial capital of Chengdu in Wenchuan county, which is famous for the Wolong panda-breeding center.
The effects could be felt across the country and beyond. In Beijing, 1,500 km away from the epicenter, buildings swayed and office workers poured out onto the streets. Tremors were also reported in Bangkok, Hanoi and Taipei. Telephone networks were overwhelmed as people around the country attempted to make calls.
Another person died when a water tower collapsed in Mianyang, Sichuan, the news agency said. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to tour sites of the destruction, and described the quake as a "disaster", while President Hu Jintao has urged "all-out" efforts to rescue victims.
Given the size of the quake, damage can be expected with a 100 km radius of the epicenter, says Robbie Morris, a project scientist with the Australian Tsunami Warning System. "If you are quite close in ... at the scene, shaking will be very violent with visible cracking of ground, quite likely with heavy damage around epicenter," Morris says. The distance of the earthquake from Chengdu, which has 10 million residents, helped prevent more extensive damage. "Going as far as Chengdu ... you can expect have quite strong shaking but much lighter damage. That will depend on local buildings and local building codes," Morris says. There hasn't been an earthquake of this size in the region for at least 30 years.
In Chengdu the shocks from the quake went on for several minutes, sending crowds of people into the streets. A local journalist said he did not see any collapsed buildings, but "a woman living on the fourth floor was complaining about her apartment wall cracking up, and a man was lamenting over his computer that fell to the floor from the desk."
The reporter said he rushed outside after the earthquake hit at 2:28 p.m. to find "streets crowded with people, and a woman who fled from her home in such haste that she wasn't even fully dressed."
With reporting by Lin Yang/Beijing