washingtonpost.com
Schools Fell While Other Buildings Held
China Investigates Construction as Grieving Parents Question Quake Deaths

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 23, 2008

MIANZHU, China -- The day the earthquake hit was supposed to be a special one for Ding Yao. Her hair done up in pigtails, she was sitting in the front of a fourth-grade classroom, waiting for the teacher to hand out prizes to students who had the highest scores on a math test. She wasn't sure, but she was hopeful she would get one.

One floor above her, fifth-graders Sang Xingpeng, the class troublemaker, and Peng Xinyin, the tall girl who loved to sing, were enjoying their midday break.

Outside, third-grader Zhou Yang was running late, busy playing with friends and chasing bees.

This, according to teachers, parents and students interviewed, was the scene at Fuxin No. 2 Primary School a few minutes before 2:28 p.m. on May 12 -- when a massive earthquake ripped through China's Sichuan province in the country's worst natural disaster in 30 years. By the end of the day, 127 of the school's 320 students would die, buried in a mess of concrete chunks and flying glass.

Since the quake, parents' grief has turned to anger.

Why, they ask, did the school collapse when other nearby buildings, including government offices, the teachers' dormitory and even an old classroom building housing pet rabbits, withstood the quake?

The same question is being asked all over Sichuan, as residents have started to notice that, on street after street, schools collapsed while most government buildings did not. In Mianzhu county, a quarter of the 43 primary and secondary schools caved in, leaving more than 1,000 students dead, while the gleaming government complex remained fully operational and is now a staging area for emergency rescue and cleanup operations.

In total, nearly 7,000 schools have been reported destroyed in Sichuan by the quake; that figure could rise as reconstruction crews reach the hardest-hit areas.

China's leaders have launched an investigation into why so many schools collapsed. Jiang Weixin, the minister of housing and urban-rural construction, said this week that authorities "cannot rule out the possibility that there may have been shoddy work and inferior materials during the construction" of some school buildings.

On Thursday, Mianzhu county announced that it would form a special committee to investigate the construction of the school in Fuxin. The principal, Wang Weiyong, asked parents to be patient and wait for experts to assess what happened here. But Liu Bo, a deputy director of the Mianzhu Education Bureau, said in an interview that he had already gone through the documentation regarding the school's annual inspections and that he believed it was perfectly safe.

"What happened isn't the result of a dangerous building," Liu said. "This tragedy is the result of a natural disaster."

Parents who have lost their children say the truth is in the rubble.

Zhang Longfu, 39, whose 12-year-old daughter, Zhang Ju, died at the school, said there is no evidence that the building ever had a solid frame. In the ruins, other than the concrete, there are only tiles and a few pieces of twisted metal cables.

"This building is totally a 'bad tofu' project," Zhang Longfu said, using the term in China for cheap, shoddy construction work. "Look at it -- it's not properly done. We feel it is wrong for kids to die this way."

The Nightmare Begins

On May 12, the first sign of the nightmare to come was the dust.

At 2:28 p.m., Zhou Yang was in front of the school playing with friends when the ground shook. Dust started to emanate from the building. "I thought, 'I just had a shower. I don't want to get dirty.' So I stayed outside," Yang later recalled.

Then the screaming began. The windows blew out. Pieces of the building started falling off.

The quake occurred at just about the worst time for the students. Their midday break was ending, but class hadn't yet started. That meant nearly all of the students were in the building, but few of the school's 32 teachers were there to offer direction.

Students in Yang's third-grade class were lucky. Because they were on the first floor, they quickly stampeded out through four exits.

In the fourth-grade classroom next door, teacher Li Mingqing was yelling: "It's an earthquake! Run, children, run!" Li recalled seeing Ding Yao, the girl with pigtails, moving slowly. She scooped her up, tucked the girl's head down and ran for safety.

Li's classroom had been packed with 75 students for the awards ceremony. But one of the doors was locked. The students struggled to get through the remaining door. Only 36 made it out.

Students in the fifth- and sixth-grade classes upstairs also started fleeing. But only so many who could fit on the stairs at one time. A few tried to take the bridge to the teachers' building but then changed their minds and turned around. They had been told that they would be punished if they ever took that route.

Peng Xinyin and Sang Xingpeng were next to each other, somewhere in the middle of the crowd.

Li, the teacher, had barely cleared the building when it collapsed. "I turned around and looked and thought, 'What now? What now?' " she recalled.

Xinyin's mother, Zhang Xuemei, was the first parent to reach the school. She recalled spotting her daughter's teacher and three others standing in front of the debris.

"Are all the students out?" she called out.

The teacher answered: "Only a few. Maybe five or six."

"My daughter?"

Pause. "She's still in there."

Zhang fainted, then woke up to chaos. Parents were crying and calling out their children's names, digging through concrete chunks with bare hands. Many were bleeding from cuts. Some teachers -- only two of them had been in the building when it fell -- joined in the search.

Just after 3 p.m., one hysterical mother located her 10-year-old daughter and pulled her out. She splashed water over her face. The girl was already dead.

For one family, a whole generation was wiped out. A sister and her two brothers each discovered they had lost a child.

Rescue workers found Xinyin just after 7 p.m. She was at the bottom of the stairs, about a yard from safety when the building caved in. There was so much debris that it took until 2:30 a.m. to free her. She had died instantly when a stone or other debris struck her neck, a doctor told the family. Sang Xingpeng was a few steps behind her, one of his legs in front of the other as if he was still running. He had suffocated to death.

A Town Divided

Nearly two decades ago, Xingpeng's mother, Liu Ying, was among the first to attend Fuxin.

Now 34, Liu said she remembers that soon after she and other students started at the school, the third floor started to develop cracks.

"I couldn't imagine that after so many years they wouldn't have fixed the problems and our kids would be dead in here," Liu said.

In the days since the quake, Fuxin has become a town divided.

Those who lost a child -- their only, because of China's one-child policy -- have bonded together and kept a constant vigil at the school.

Those whose children survived have avoided the school and, in some cases, have decided it is best to act as though nothing ever happened.

On Tuesday, for instance, while Liu was on her way back home from visiting the spot where her son, Xingpeng, has been buried, a neighbor whose daughter survived told her she had heard the semester's exams would be postponed as a result of the quake. Did Liu know anything about that?

Liu politely shook her head and continued home, where she finds comfort in her son's things.

There are the goldfish and turtles her husband gave Xingpeng a few days before the quake. There's the loquat tree that he had been so eager to eat from that he counted the pieces of fruit each day. And then there are the best things, Liu said, the signs of his mischief: the stickers of pop stars on the walls, the broken decorations, the ruined potatoes he pulled out from the ground before they were ready to be eaten.

Researcher Crissie Ding contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company