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Parents Mourn Loss of Children in Flash Flood

Residents of the Chinese town of Shalan estimate that 200 students died while at school Friday. Negligence may have set the stage for tragedy.

June 14, 2005|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — It was about 2 in the afternoon when Sun Shixiang and his wife saw the river water suddenly rise and rush toward the elementary school.

Sun dashed over and found his only son trapped in his third-grade classroom. The water reached the farmer's waist and was still rising. For the next three hours, father and son clung to a window frame and waited for the deluge to recede.

By the time they got out, more than half the school's 352 children had drowned, said villagers in Shalan, in northeastern China's Heilongjiang province.

"When we forced our way in, there were little bodies floating everywhere. It was unwatchable," Sun's wife, Sun Xiuqin, said by phone from her home. Although her 10-year-old son was saved, her 8-year-old nephew and 9-year-old niece were not. "The parents went mad. Everyone was crying."

Chinese authorities have attributed Friday's tragedy to torrential rains that caused the area's worst flash flood and mudslide in 200 years. They put the death toll at 92, of which 88 were children. But parents say the numbers are at least twice that.

At the local morgue, most of the 100 refrigerators contained not one but two bodies, villagers said. Other children were missing or had been buried by parents.

"We think at least 200 children died," said Ning Xuebin, 32, whose niece drowned in her classroom. "They are saying it's fewer than that because they don't want the truth to get out."

In China, deadly floods are an annual plague. This year's rainy season, which began in May, claimed more than 200 lives in southern China and affected millions before the school tragedy. Now, citizens in Shalan and elsewhere are questioning whether the government has taken adequate precautions.

According to an editorial in the China Daily newspaper, more than 30,000 reservoirs built in the 1950s and 1970s are in poor condition, verging on dangerous. Antiquated warning systems relying on bonfires or gunshots desperately need upgrading.

The parents in Shalan say that nature is only part of the problem.

"This is not just a natural disaster, this is also a man-made disaster," Ning said. "All it takes is a few minutes to evacuate the school, and all the children would be alive today."

Parents interviewed by phone said that about 40 minutes before the water hit the school, someone in a village upriver had tried to call and warn Shalan of the impending flood. But no one answered the phone at the school. The person who picked up at the town office said he was too busy to do anything about it. Another call went to the local police station. The officers were out on duty.

"The teacher, the principal, everybody has a cellphone. They could have easily warned the children," said a 36-year-old woman who gave only her surname, Zeng. Her 11-year-old son survived by running out of the classroom and wading in the river until his parents came. Three of their neighbors' sons didn't make it.

"Why didn't they do anything?" she asked. "Are these people human?"

By the time help arrived, most of the parents had fished their children out of the blackened water. Angry villagers said local officials had not only failed to lend a hand, they had stood in the way.

As parents raced to the school on motorbikes, police officers stopped some to issue fines for permit violations.

"If they didn't block the motorbikes, more parents could have gotten to the school on time to help the teachers save the children," Zeng said.

When the police chief came, he just stood there and watched, said Zeng's father-in-law, who gave only his surname, Zhang.

"He wore a life jacket," Zhang said. "One parent asked if he could borrow it. He said no. The parent jumped into the water without it."

According to the official New China News Agency, the town's Communist Party and police chiefs are under investigation for allegedly failing to organize a timely rescue.

What really shocked parents was that while some teachers risked their lives to help their students, others climbed to higher ground and abandoned the young.

"There is only one little girl left in the first grade," said Sun Xiuqin, the mother of the 10-year-old boy who survived. "When we got there, we saw their teachers standing on the roof. Those were 7- and 8-year-olds. How could they have fended for themselves?"

In some ways, the parents had known this was a disaster waiting to happen. The school sits on low ground. When the campus was reconstructed several years ago, it was supposed to be a two-story structure, but only one floor was built. Villagers believe officials pocketed the rest of the money.

When the local reservoir overflowed, the water rushed down the river toward the school. It filled up like a tank. The original playground might have been large enough to hold the excess water, but it had shrunk after teachers built new homes on the plot. They stood like a wall and helped trap the floodwater.

"It's like the school sat at the bottom of a wok. There's no way for the water to get out," Sun said. "The parents are devastated. Most of us have only one child. The police, government officials, if they cared enough, so many children wouldn't have to die."

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