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.
"Survivors can hold on for some time. Now it's not time to give up," Wang Zhenyao, disaster relief division director at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told reporters in Beijing.
Thirty-one British tourists who were panda-watching in Wolong National Nature Reserve and initially reported missing were safe and in the provincial capital of Chengdu Tuesday night, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Kerry Zobor, the U.S.-based spokeswoman for the World Wildlife Fund, said they have not been able to contact the 12 WWF members visiting the reserve, or their tour operator.
"The communications are still disrupted and we're hoping to have an update by the end of the day," Zobor said Tuesday.
All the pandas were reported safe.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who rushed to the area to oversee rescue efforts, said a push was on to clear roads and restore electricity as soon as possible. His visit to the disaster scene was prominently featured on state TV, a gesture meant to reassure people that the ruling party was doing all it could.
"We will save the people," Wen said through a bullhorn to survivors as he toured the disaster scene, in footage shown on CCTV. "As long as the people are there, factories can be built into even better ones, and so can the towns and counties."
Some 20,000 soldiers and police arrived in the disaster area with 30,000 more on the way by plane, train, trucks and even on foot, the Defense Ministry told Xinhua.
Aftershocks rattled the region for a second day, sending people running into the streets in Chengdu. The U.S. Geological Survey measured the shocks between magnitude 4 and 6, some of the strongest since Monday's 7.9-magnitude quake.
Expressions of sympathy and offers of help poured in from the United States, Japan and the European Union, among others.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush spoke by phone with Chinese President Hu Jintao and expressed his condolences. She said the U.S. is offering an initial $500,000 in earthquake relief in anticipation of an appeal by the International Red Cross.
The Dalai Lama, who has been vilified by Chinese authorities who blame him for recent unrest in Tibet, offered prayers for the victims. The epicenter is just south of some Tibetan mountain areas that saw anti-government protests earlier this year.
Beijing Games organizers said the Olympic torch relay will continue as planned through the quake-affected area next month.
The Chinese government said it would welcome outside aid, and Russia was sending a plane with rescuers and supplies, the country's Interfax news agency reported.
But Wang, the disaster relief official, said international aid workers would not be allowed to travel to the affected area.
"We welcome funds and supplies; we can't accommodate personnel at this point," he said.
China's Ministry of Finance said it had allocated $123 million in aid for quake-hit areas.The quake was China's deadliest since 1976, when 240,000 people were killed in the city of Tangshan, near Beijing in 1976. Financial analysts said the quake would have only a limited impact on the country's booming economy.
Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen in Juyuan and Audra Ang in Chengdu contributed to this report.