It wasn't until they reached Yingxiu that it became clear how nightmarish it was.
Chinese rescue workers arrived on foot for the first time since Monday afternoon's earthquake at the town where 10,000 people used to live.
Today, they discovered, it has a population of only 2,300. Everyone else is dead.
Across central China today military helicopters began dropping food and aid workers started to reach the hardest-hit villages, areas that had been isolated because roads had been wiped away in the three-minute-long, magnitude 7.9 earthquake.
The more villages are reached, the scale of devastation escalates for China's worst natural disaster in more than 30 years.
The ever increasing death toll now officially stands at 14,866, according to Xinhua, China's state news agency. The vice governor of Sichuan province, the area worst hit by the quake, reported today that in his province 25,788 people were still buried. China's news agency reported that more than 14,000 people are missing.
Around the epicenter, schools and even factories were not built to withstand the ground shaking so violently. A countless number of them lie in ruins. Buildings that used to stand tall are now no more than 5-feet-high heaps of rubble and wrenched steel.
Across those towns, you can hear it before you see it. Aid workers yelling and pounding the rubble, a tireless search for the living, for the tens of thousands of people who have become invisible residents of these cities, holding on to life under piles of debris.
A rescuer in Chengdu, sifting through rubble and twisted metal, suddenly turns and yells. "Come on, send a doctor immediately!" She gestures toward a survivor. "One of her legs is jammed between the walls."
It's a child who has been trapped for two days, no food and no water.
"Which grade are you in?" the rescuers ask. "Grade two," the girl says.
There are some people being saved, but the vast majority of those trapped under the buildings that gave way are dying. The buildings are becoming tombs.
There were more than 2,000 students stuck beneath the rubble at some point, according to the news agency Xinhua. Most of them are still missing. In a country where parents are only allowed to have one child, the earthquake has stolen part of an entire generation.
In Juyan, 60 miles from the epicenter, every few steps is a story of loss. The widow who is burning paper money to honor the soul of her dead husband. The father whose favorite son has been missing since the quake hit. Outside the school where 900 students had been buried, hundreds of rescue workers and medics say they've heard no signs of life today.
"Hope is gone," a man who identified himself only as Dr. Li tells ABC News.
A cordon of soldiers blocked anguished parents from a collapsed building at Xindian primary school in Dujiangyan, where about 200 children and staff were buried. A nearby sign told relatives to search for their children at the morgue.
The Chinese government has dispatched 50,00 troops to the region to help dig through the rubble and despite the rain that has been hampering rescue efforts some remarkable survivor stories are emerging in the 48 hours after the deadly quake struck.
In Mianzhu, where thousands have already been confirmed dead, about 500 people were pulled out alive from crushed buildings.