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Anger builds over collapsed schools

Residents of one hard-hit town say construction was poor. They blame local and national officials.

May 24, 2008|Mark Magnier and Don Lee | Times Staff Writers

FUXIN, CHINA — The No. 2 Elementary School was the only building in the area that collapsed, killing perhaps as many as 129 children.

Nearby, a mud-and-brick house villagers said was built during the 1644-to-1911 Qing Dynasty remained intact. A three-story concrete and steel police building showed little damage, except for a few broken windows.

"Come over here. Look at this. That's a main beam," said Zhang Daolin, 37, a farmer whose son Zhang Wei, 12, died in the school collapse. "There's no steel inside. This was a three-story building. How could you hold it up?"

Like Zhang Daolin, grieving parents have repeatedly questioned the quality of school construction after the magnitude 7.9 earthquake that struck Sichuan province May 12. So many primary students died in the town of Yingxiu that residents have talked about losing a generation.

Officials have not released the number of students killed, saying only that nearly 7,000 schoolrooms were destroyed. Last week, amid angry questions from the public, officials of the Construction and Education ministries announced an investigation into why so many schools had collapsed.

Parental rage at the weak construction of schools could become a major challenge for the government. These are not political dissidents or "troublemakers" the Communist Party can easily write off, but parents who have lost children at a time of more civil or "people- oriented" policies by the administration of President Hu Jintao.

Increasingly, sorrow has intensified the anger at the government.

At the pile of rubble that had been Fuxin No. 2 Elementary School, 150 parents, uncles and grandmothers Thursday sat in long rows clutching framed pictures of their dead children.

A long banner had children's names written in their parents' blood. Another banner directed at local and Communist Party officials read, "Leaders, you're safe, you can sleep comfortably. How about those poor children?"

At the far end of the rectangular courtyard that was once the school driveway, they had built a makeshift shrine. A tape recorder played Buddhist chants in a loop. Incense sticks bristled from three plastic dishpans beside burning red candles and more pictures of dead students placed on top of student desks.

Parents said the three-story school building, normally used by more than 300 students, had only one open door. Many students, they said, died in the crush to flee after a single, narrow stairway collapsed on them.

All 20 teachers, most of whom were in the still-intact teachers building when the quake hit, survived, several parents said. They alleged that the few teachers who were in the school raced ahead of children to get out first, with the exception of one teacher who rescued several students.

As with some of the other schools that have completely or partially collapsed in the quake-hit area, which is about the size of Connecticut, the teachers quarters and a meeting room area around the classrooms remained largely intact.

Parents said local officials had avoided them. They said officials claimed that only 50 students died. No local media had come to report the story, they believed, because of local governmental pressure to cover up misdeeds.

"I plan to come here every day until those who approved this construction are punished," said Chen Xuefen, 32, as she cradled a picture of her 11-year-old son, Jing Chung.

Even worse than the structural issues, some parents said, was the role authorities played. Parents said students were transferred to this school in September so that the building they previously used could be leased to an apparel factory. They suspect that officials have pocketed the proceeds. That building wasn't damaged.

Zhu Qi, vice bureau chief of the Mianzhu Education Administration, said building safety was not his agency's responsibility and that he didn't have expertise in steel reinforcement or exits, the purview of the construction bureau.

But he said a task force had been formed to investigate the collapse of the school, which was built in 1988 at a cost of $28,000.

Zhu said the administration was also investigating whether teachers had fled, but he said the earthquake occurred during a break, so that might explain why more teachers weren't in the school. Local officials have met with parents, he said, and haven't tried to control the media. He said he had no knowledge of the former school being leased to a private company.

For parents such as Song Min, who sat outside the school holding a picture of her smiling 11-year-old son, Feng Junwei, the main goal was not to blame the central government or the education administration for the tragic losses, but rather to try to push for safer buildings.

"We hope there will be real change in the way schools are built so children can study peacefully," Song said.

"We just hope such a tragedy doesn't happen to anyone else."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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don.lee@latimes.com

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