School Collapse Furor Gives Rise to Contrition

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 30, 2008

MIANYANG, China, May 29 -- A local Sichuan province official has withdrawn from the Olympic torch relay after acknowledging that lax government oversight of construction may have contributed to the collapse of dozens of schools that killed at least 9,000 children in this month's earthquake.

Lin Qiang, vice inspector of the province's educational department, said the buildings might have been able to better withstand the quake's force "if we educational officials hadn't left loopholes for corruption," the government-run New China News Agency reported Thursday. Lin said he had to "reject the honor" of carrying the torch.

Faced with mounting parent anger over their children's deaths, a government-organized team of building engineers has begun inspecting at least one of the devastated schools. At Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu city, investigators took photos of the ruins and samples of the tons of concrete and bricks that crushed to death 127 students, according to a parent who is monitoring the situation.

Meanwhile, recovery efforts in Beichuan county, one of the hardest hit in the May 12 quake, faced new hardships. A stockpile of chemicals used to disinfect the rubble of thousands of buildings ignited, engulfing the area in heavy smoke and dangerous fumes, state television reported. At least 800 people in the area were evacuated and 61 soldiers were injured.

Heavy rain complicated the government's race to prevent the most dangerous of 34 landslide-created lakes from bursting its banks. More than 158,000 people have been evacuated downstream of the Tangjiashan "quake lake" near Beichuan, and 5 million more who live in Mianyang city have been participating in evacuation drills in recent days as the lake's waters have continued to rise.

About 600 soldiers worked through the night to dig a channel that would provide controlled flow for the water, but helicopters that had been ferrying equipment and fuel to the site were grounded by the weather in mid-afternoon, state media reported.

Soldiers using earth-moving equipment have succeeded in digging a trench 50 yards wide and 300 yards long, but Liu Ning, chief engineer for the Water Resources Ministry, said they also cleared an emergency retreat path for themselves Thursday in case the water rises too quickly and they have to abandon the massive excavation effort.

Even as they continue the grim task of totaling the rising toll of confirmed deaths -- 68,516 so far, expected to rise to at least 80,000 -- government officials are beginning to calculate the quake's economic impact. The State Information Center estimated that the earthquake caused economic losses of more than $86 billion, more than triple the impact of a severe snowstorm this past winter that paralyzed portions of the nation's transportation network. Spending for a massive rebuilding effort will likely offset some of that. Premier Wen Jiabao has said the government would allocate more than $10 billion this year to begin reconstruction.

Sichuan is not an industrial center and most of its production facilities are in areas unaffected by the quake. The province does produce 9.2 percent of the nation's grain and 11.6 percent of its pork, so economists worry the quake will worsen inflation.

Sichuan's tourist industry suffered a big blow. Not only were some scenic spots destroyed, including most of the 2,000-year-old buildings at Erwang Temple, but the giant panda reserve in Wolong is struggling. Shortly after the quake, reserve workers hiked into the forests and found no dead pandas, but dangerous conditions have prevented them from making a new check, the New China News Agency reported.

Indeed, the Associated Press reported that officials are considering moving the reserve to a new home. "What I'm worrying about are secondary disasters, such as severe aftershocks," Zhang Hemin, chief of the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve, said by telephone. "The road is easily blocked by rocks falling from the mountain. There would be no way to get the food in."

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