Wen Jiabao

China’s top leaders said they were thankful for U.S. help after Sichuan’s devastating earthquake, with Premier Wen Jiabao saying Monday he was impressed that the first foreigners he saw providing help when he toured the province were Americans.

Almost 70,000 people died in the May 12 quake that devastated a wide swathe of Sichuan. The dead included thousands of schoolchildren who died when their classrooms crumbled.

“I would like to express our thanks to madam secretary and through you to the American people,” Wen told visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Wen said he was being driven to Beichuan in northern Sichuan, where at least 16,000 people died, when he saw three young people with backpacks.

He asked his driver to stop, got out of the car and learned the three were Americans.

“I was touched by their enthusiasm to help and I thanked them,” he said.