By Alex Tresniowski
May 26, 2008 12:00 PM

At 2:28 in the afternoon of May 12, the earth heaved in China’s central Sichuan province. As Melissa Block, a reporter for NPR’s All Things Considered radio show, conducted an interview in the city of Chengdu, the ground beneath her feet began to shake. “Oh, my goodness,” she said into her tape recorder, “the top of the church is falling down. The cross on the top of the building is waving wildly and bricks are falling off…. People are huddled together in the street. The ground is still waving.”

Just minutes later it was over, and the horror of what happened began to unfold. A powerful earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale ripped through the mountainous province some 900 miles southwest of Beijing, at a time when most people were indoors, either in schools or at work. The damage was unthinkable: small towns and bigger cities nearly flattened, landslides and power failures across dozens of miles, schools and factories crumbled into smoking mounds of rubble. On May 13 China’s disaster response director confirmed more than 12,000 people were killed, with thousands more still missing and masses of people left homeless.

In Dujiangyan, one of the many devastated cities and towns in Wenchuan county, at least two school buildings had toppled, creating scenes of terrible grief and confusion. One witness, identified only by her surname, Wu, arrived at the Xinjian Primary School before midnight on May 12 and watched “a man dig out two children from the building, which was in pieces, but not find his own son, who is in the fourth grade,” Wu later said in an online posting. At the hard-hit Juyuan Middle School, where some 900 students were buried, “hundreds of worried parents ran towards every body that was brought out,” wrote Wu. “Since many could not be recognized by their faces, they tried to recognize their children’s bodies by their shoes, fingernails and the color of their socks.”

Survival seemed almost random. Some parents told reporters that schoolchildren hid under desks rather than run for safety, all but assuring their deaths. Next door to the Juyuan Middle school, an elementary school building—perhaps better built—remained upright, sparing its students. In Chengdu, 50 miles from the epicenter, tall structures swayed but did not fall. “People were standing in the street to see if their buildings would collapse,” says Fan Limin, 28, manager of a Chengdu bookstore. “Some people were wearing only underwear, and some women were carrying babies and dogs.” Hu Pengcheng, 30, chose to stay inside his 13th-floor apartment in Chengdu when the quake began. “I felt a very strong trembling, and I heard screaming, and lots of people ran outside,” he says. “I just gave up. I stayed inside and sat down, just feeling the trembling for two or three minutes. I was scared at first but then I thought, if I die, I have no choice. And I was not so scared after that.”

For those who lost loved ones to the earthquake, all hope was already gone. At Juyuan Middle School, rescue crews working in a steady rain laid body after body on plastic tarps alongside the wreckage, as parents crowded around to see if their children were among the dead. When one body was brought out, “the child’s face [was] gray, covered in dust,” NPR’s Melissa Block reported. “Soon enough, four women collapse in grief at his side. They are rocking in pain and wailing as they recognized the boy as their own.” This young victim, like so many others, was later wrapped in a soft quilt, set upon a piece of wood and placed atop a small mound of stones so that he could be mourned, Block said. As other parents waited under makeshift tarps for news, the sounds of firecrackers, lit by the grieving to ward off evil spirits, filled the night.