The high school students were settling in to afternoon arts and humanities classes when the massive quake struck. The school collapsed so rapidly — one floor "pancaking" atop another — that there was practically no time to escape.
As orange-suited rescue teams searched the wreckage for survivors, parents watched amid a cold, steady drizzle Tuesday.
Troops lined two deep kept the emotional family members away from the teams working with cranes and hand tools.
"You tell us to wait. We can't wait anymore. We must have some information," a woman pleaded with soldiers at the edge of what was left of the school in Juyuan.
Quake unleased heartbreaking grief
The grief unleashed by Monday's magnitude-7.9 earthquake was etched across this farming and manufacturing town perched in the foothills of the Tibetan highlands.
All but a handful of the more than 900 students were believed trapped under the slabs of cement, bricks, tile and twisted cables. Only one survivor has been found: a girl pulled free by a rescue team. Her identity has not been released.
Juyuan was a magnet school attracting the region's top students, ranging from seventh grade to ninth grade, many of them from isolated communities who boarded in an adjacent dormitory.
Rescuers, medics and soldiers ferried the bodies of the young victims on doors salvaged from the ruins. Most were eighth- and ninth-graders bound for senior high school and a chance for upward mobility in the town, an hour northwest of the provincial capital, Chengdu.
Unless more survivors are found, the quake will have wiped out the school's entire graduating class and about half its student population.
Walls and columns collapsed
Engineers said the school's walls and support columns gave way almost instantly.
"These buildings just weren't made for that powerful of a quake. Some don't even meet the basic specifications," said Dai Jun, a structural engineer and concrete specialist in Chengdu who was surveying damage in the area.
Authorities have not said whether they'll investigate the collapse. Neighboring and adjoining school buildings suffered relatively little damage.
The rescue crews arrived within hours. By 3 a.m. Tuesday — more than 12 hours after the earthquake — 60 bodies had been recovered; several dozen more were pulled out later in the day.
The victims were carried to the edge of the muddy school yard, placed under a tarp canopy and wrapped in sheets and blankets, some splattered with blood.
Families numb with grief
Families staged impromptu religious rites. A few 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 bodies.
Among the dead was ninth-grader Li Yulu, whose family displayed a blown-up photograph of her smiling face. The picture contrasted with the mangled condition of many of the corpses.
"They were all our friends and we'll miss them a lot," said a seventh grader who gave her name as Xiao Mei and wore the school's red, white and blue track suit uniform. "I'm very sad."
Because the quake struck in midafternoon Monday, students seemed disproportionately among the victims in Juyuan and across the quake-devastated counties of Sichuan.
Just east of the epicenter, in Beichuan county, 1,000 students and teachers were killed or missing at a collapsed high school — a more than six-story building reduced to a pile of rubble about two yards high, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Another 200 people, mostly children, were buried at two schools in Hanwang township.
On Tuesday, meanwhile, Xinhua reported that 178 children were confirmed dead in one school in Qingchuan in northern Sichuan.