The bodies of the young teenagers were brought out of the wreckage on doors scavenged from what remained of their school building.
Taken to the edge of the schoolyard, which had turned muddy after overnight rains, the earthquake victims were placed under a tarp canopy and wrapped in sheets and blankets. Some of the linens were splattered with blood.
A few family members lit incense and candles, while others set off fireworks to ward off evil spirits. Most, though, appeared numb with shock and sat quietly next to the three dozen bodies.
There was little word on the rest of the nearly 900 teenagers who were believed to be trapped under their collapsed school building. Hundreds of other relatives at the Juyuan Middle School were frantic after a night of waiting in the rain, shaking and wailing as they demanded information.
"You tell us to wait, we can't wait anymore. We must have some information," a woman pleaded with soldiers Tuesday at the edge of the school in this hard-hit town. The troops were lined two deep, keeping the emotional family members away from the building.
"Give us information, tell us what's happening," the crowd shouted at the soldiers, surging forward every now and then before being pushed back.
Quake hit during afternoon classes
The four-story building collapsed Monday after a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake that was felt throughout much of China and as far away as Vietnam. The 8th and 9th graders were apparently in class when the quake struck in the middle of the afternoon.
The concrete and brick school building had mostly collapsed in the quake, but a stairwell lined with ceramic tiles remained intact, rising straight out of the rubble surrounding it. A blackboard on a wall that remained had been written on with colorful chalk.
The desperate, bedraggled family members waited through the night in a cold hard rain, with some crouching under umbrellas and others huddling under two blue relief tents pitched in the muddy schoolyard.
So far rescuers have recovered more than 60 bodies, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Officials have not released an exact count on the number of missing students, although about 900 would have been in the building at the time of the quake.
Girl pulled out alive
Some managed to escape, while at least one was pulled out of the wreckage alive Tuesday morning. The young teenage girl was placed on a stretcher and rushed into an ambulance.
Three enormous cranes lifted car-sized slabs of concrete off the pile of rubble. A rescue team with pickaxes, shovels and electric saws worked by hand to clear the wreckage.
A unit from China's specialized earthquake rescue unit was also at the scene. Dressed in orange jumpsuits with "China" printed on the back, the men had a truck full of specialized equipment to detect sounds of trapped survivors, as well as cutting tools and heavier equipment for clearing rubble.
Families in the area around Juyuan, a medium-sized town in Sichuan province about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the quake's epicenter, slept outside after the quake. They huddled under makeshift tents constructed of tarps, using flashlights and candles for light.
Sales of clear plastic sheeting were brisk, and many people were gathering belongings and moving in with relatives.