Schools Fell While Other Buildings Held

China Investigates Construction as Grieving Parents Question Quake Deaths

Li Shan Fu's 16-year-old daughter was pulled from the rubble only be to lost after being taken away in an ambulance. As Li continues his search, other parents' grief turns into anger.
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.

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