BEICHUAN, China (CNN) -- A horrific scene emerged from the rubble of Beichuan Middle School Thursday, three days after a massive earthquake shook southwestern China to its core.
A student is pulled from the rubble at a school in Beichuan Wednesday.
Parents collapsed in spasms of agony as search teams pulled body after lifeless body from slabs of concrete and contorted metal, carrying them out on stretchers.
"There are teenagers wearing jeans and gym shoes and their bodies are twisted," CNN's John Vause said, reporting from just outside the school. "The expression on one girl's face was just pain -- she was dead."
Similar scenes unfolded across a vast expanse of southwestern China.
The quake hit Monday afternoon, when thousands of children were in class. Chinese authorities have confirmed that at least several hundred children died in schools in one town alone -- and an untold number have perished in schools elsewhere.
At Beichuan Middle School, the recovery effort was a delicate paradox. Some of 200 rescue workers clawed at the rubble with bare hands, while others manned giant cranes to move tons of debris that used to make up the school.
Parents have huddled outside the school for more than 72 hours, keeping an exhausting vigil despite odds that grew longer by the hour.
One woman collapsed when she recognized her daughter as the latest life claimed by the quake.
"Every time we see a stretcher, there's hope that maybe somebody is alive," Vause said, "but, so far, they've only been dead."
The heartbreak continued, unrelenting.
"Another person just got pulled out ... another teenager is coming out," Vause said. "And another one. And a third one. Every time that stretcher comes out with a body, that death toll just goes higher."