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As children's bodies are found, firecrackers pop

  • Story Highlights
  • Noise believed to ward off evil spirits after earthquake in China
  • Nearly 900 children thought to be trapped in rubble of school
  • Parents strain to identify each body as it is pulled from debris
  • Prime minister visits site, gives words of encouragement
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(CNN) -- The sharp sound of firecrackers and the wails of grieving parents echoed Tuesday morning above Juyuan Middle School, where hundreds of students are still trapped 24 hours after a major earthquake in central China.

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A mother cries out as soldiers carry the body of her child from the rubble of a collapsed school in China.

The firecrackers, a tradition to ward off evil spirits, sounded each time a child's body was found, a reporter at the scene said.

"We heard firecrackers at regular intervals of about 5, 10 minutes," said Jamil Anderlini, a reporter for the Financial Times.

Anderlini said he arrived at the school in the predawn hours of Tuesday, after reports that nearly 900 children were trapped underneath the three-story building toppled by Monday's magnitude 7.9 quake.

"There were screaming parents and, as bodies would come out, the parents were trying to identify whether it was their child or not," he said. Video Watch rescuers pull a child from the rubble »

"Once they realized it was their child, obviously they collapsed in grief. It was a very shocking thing to watch."

By Monday night, at least 50 bodies had been pulled from the rubble at the school, located in Juyuan Township of Dujiangyan City in Sichuan Province, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

More than 10 survivors have been rescued, including a middle-aged woman and a small girl whose face was covered with ashes.

Some who were still trapped struggled to free themselves from the debris, while others -- unable to move -- called out for help. Several excavators, earthmovers and cranes were being used to find and free the survivors.

Surrounded by shrouded victims, one mother wailed as she collapsed onto the covered body of her child. Other mothers huddled underneath umbrellas and makeshift tents, waiting for any word on their children.

Hours after the quake, China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the school, one of at least six schools that collapsed in the quake or its aftershocks, Xinhua reported.

He offered words of hope to those trapped, calling to them through a loudspeaker: "Please just hold on, people are going to get you out of here."

He comforted the grieving families, assuring them that rescuers would not rest until the last person was pulled out alive.

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"If there is a gleam of hope, we will do all the best to save the people," Wen said. "The medical experts are coming, the rescue planes will land soon."

Wen bowed three times to pay his respect to the bodies that lay on the school's square and expressed his sadness at their deaths.

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