Grief in the Rubble Chinese Are Left to Ask Why Schools Crumbled
By JIM YARDLEY
Published: May 25, 2008
DUJIANGYAN, China — The earthquake’s destruction of Xinjian Primary School was swift and complete. Hundreds of children were crushed as the floors collapsed in a deluge of falling bricks and concrete. Days later, as curiosity seekers came with video cameras and as parents came to grieve, the four-story school was no more than rubble.
In contrast, none of the nearby buildings were badly damaged. A separate kindergarten less than 20 feet away survived with barely a crack. An adjacent 10-story hotel stood largely undisturbed. And another local primary school, Beijie, catering to children of the elite, was in such good condition that local officials were using it as a refugee center.
“This is not a natural disaster,” said Ren Yongchang, whose 9-year-old son died inside the destroyed school. His hands were covered in plaster dust as he stood beside the rubble, shouting and weeping as he grabbed the exposed steel rebar of a broken concrete column. “This is not good steel. It doesn’t meet standards. They stole our children.”
There is no official figure on how many children died at Xinjian Primary School, nor on how many died at scores of other schools that collapsed in the powerful May 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province. But the number of student deaths seems likely to exceed 10,000, and possibly go much higher, a staggering figure that has become a simmering controversy in China as grieving parents say their children might have lived had the schools been better built.
The Chinese government has enjoyed broad public support for its handling of the earthquake, and in Sichuan on Saturday, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations praised the government’s response.
But as parents at different schools begin to speak out, the question of whether official negligence, and possibly corruption, contributed to the student deaths could turn public opinion. The government has launched an investigation, but censors, wary of the public mood, are trying to suppress the issue in state-run media and online.
An examination of the collapse of Xinjian Primary School offers a disturbing picture of a calamity that might have been avoided. Many parents say they were told the school was unsafe. Xinjian was poorly built when it opened its doors in 1992, they say, and never got its share of government funds for reconstruction because of its low ranking in the local education bureaucracy and the low social status of its students.
A decade ago, a detached wing of the school was torn down and rebuilt because of safety concerns. But the main building remained unimproved. Engineers and earthquake experts who examined photographs of its wreckage concluded that the structure had many failings and one critical flaw: inadequate iron reinforcing rods running up the school’s vertical columns. One expert described the unstable concrete floor panels as “time bombs.”
Xinjian also was ill-equipped for a crisis. An ambulance and other rescue vehicles that responded after the earthquake could not fit through the entrance into the school’s courtyard. A bulldozer finally dug up beneath the front gate to create enough overhead clearance. Parents say they believe several hundred of the school’s 660 pupils died.
“It is impossible to describe,” said a nurse standing on the rubble of the Xinjian site. “There is death everywhere.”
Schools are vulnerable to earthquakes, especially in developing nations where less attention is paid to building codes. The quake in Sichuan Province has already claimed 60,560 lives, and some of the flattened schools, especially those buried under landslides, could not have stood under any circumstances. The government has not provided a public list of those schools, but one early estimate concluded that more than 7,000 “schoolrooms” were destroyed.
China has national building codes intended to ensure that major structures withstand earthquakes. The government also has made upgrading or replacing substandard schools a priority as part of a broader effort to improve and expand education. Yet codes are spottily enforced. In March 2006, Sichuan Province issued a notice that local governments must inspect schools because too many remained unsafe, according to one official Web site.