Grief in the Rubble Chinese Are Left to Ask Why Schools Crumbled
By JIM YARDLEY Published: May 25, 2008
DUJIANGYAN, China — The earthquake’s destruction of Xinjian Primary School was swift and complete. Hundreds of children were crushed as the floors collapsed in a deluge of falling bricks and concrete. Days later, as curiosity seekers came with video cameras and as parents came to grieve, the four-story school was no more than rubble.
In contrast, none of the nearby buildings were badly damaged. A separate kindergarten less than 20 feet away survived with barely a crack. An adjacent 10-story hotel stood largely undisturbed. And another local primary school, Beijie, catering to children of the elite, was in such good condition that local officials were using it as a refugee center.
"This is not a natural disaster, " said Ren Yongchang, whose 9-year-old son died inside the destroyed school. His hands were covered in plaster dust as he stood beside the rubble, shouting and weeping as he grabbed the exposed steel rebar of a broken concrete column. "This is not good steel. It doesn't meet standards. They stole our children."
There is no official figure on how many children died at Xinjian Primary School, nor on how many died at scores of other schools that collapsed in the powerful May 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province. But the number of student deaths seems likely to exceed 10,000, and possibly go much higher, a staggering figure that has become a simmering controversy in China as grieving parents say their children might have lived had the schools been better built.
The Chinese government has enjoyed broad public support for its handling of the earthquake, and in Sichuan on Saturday, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations praised the government's response.
But as parents at different schools begin to speak out, the question of whether official negligence, and possibly corruption, contributed to the student deaths could turn public opinion. The government has launched an investigation, but censors, wary of the public mood, are trying to suppress the issue in state-run media and online.
An examination of the collapse of Xinjian Primary School offers a disturbing picture of a calamity that might have been avoided. Many parents say they were told the school was unsafe. Xinjian was poorly built when it opened its doors in 1992, they say, and never got its share of government funds for reconstruction because of its low ranking in the local education bureaucracy and the low social status of its students.
A decade ago, a detached wing of the school was torn down and rebuilt because of safety concerns. But the main building remained unimproved. Engineers and earthquake experts who examined photographs of its wreckage concluded that the structure had many failings and one critical flaw: inadequate iron reinforcing rods running up the school's vertical columns. One expert described the unstable concrete floor panels as “time bombs.”
Xinjian also was ill-equipped for a crisis. An ambulance and other rescue vehicles that responded after the earthquake could not fit through the entrance into the school’s courtyard. A bulldozer finally dug up beneath the front gate to create enough overhead clearance. Parents say they believe several hundred of the school’s 660 pupils died.
"It is impossible to describe, "said a nurse standing on the rubble of the Xinjian site. "There is death everywhere."
Schools are vulnerable to earthquakes, especially in developing nations where less attention is paid to building codes. The quake in Sichuan Province has already claimed 60,560 lives, and some of the flattened schools, especially those buried under landslides, could not have stood under any circumstances. The government has not provided a public list of those schools, but one early estimate concluded that more than 7,000 "choolrooms" were destroyed.
China has national building codes intended to ensure that major structures withstand earthquakes. The government also has made upgrading or replacing substandard schools a priority as part of a broader effort to improve and expand education. Yet codes are spottily enforced. In March 2006, Sichuan Province issued a notice that local governments must inspect schools because too many remained unsafe, according to one official Web site.
Nothing is more central to the social contract in China than schools. Parents sacrifice and "eat bitter" so their children can get educations that lead to better lives. In turn, children care for their parents in old age. As in Manhattan, affluent Chinese fight to gain entrance to top schools from kindergarten onward.
"THERE IS DEATH EVERYWHERE" Soldiers uncovered a student's body at Beichuan Middle School, one of scores of schools that collapsed. Beichuan was one of the towns hardest hit on May 12.
But the families who sent their children to Xinjian are neither wealthy nor well connected. They are among the hundreds of millions still struggling to benefit from China's economic rise. Many lost their jobs when a local cement plant shut down. Some sought work in more prosperous areas, leaving their children behind to attend school.
Angry parents at several destroyed schools are beginning to stage small demonstrations. On Wednesday, more than 200 Xinjian parents demonstrated at the temporary tents used by Dujiangyan's education bureau, demanding an investigation and accusing officials of corruption and negligence.
One of the parents, Li Wei, said his son was one of 54 students who died in a class of 60 fifth graders. He said education officials told the demonstrating parents that the bureau had reported safety concerns to municipal leaders in the past. But their complaints were ignored.
"We want to bring justice for our children," one father said the day before the protest. "We want the local officials to pay the price."
Poor School, Long Neglected
The earthquake struck on May 12 at 2:28 in the afternoon as 20 fifth graders were rehearsing a dance on the basketball court in front of the school. Fourth graders were outside for gym class. When nearby shopkeepers rushed over, the children were standing on the court amid a cloud of dust. "They weren't crying," said Chen Chunmei, 35, the manager of a shopping strip beside the school. "They were in shock."
The main building was decimated. Parents, neighbors and nearby college students arrived to find awful carnage. Ma Qiang, a decommissioned soldier living across the street, described a sickening scene.
"We were standing on the bodies of dead children, pulling out other children," he recalled days later. He stood in the rubble and held his hand level with his head. "The concrete was this high. On the top was a boy, and two girls below him, and another boy under them, who was dead. It took four hours to dig them out."
For hours, this ad hoc rescue team formed a line and passed along bricks or chunks of concrete in an attempt to clear debris. Bodies of children were piled on the sidewalk across the street. By late evening, paramilitary officers arrived and ordered the parents and others to withdraw outside the school gate. Many parents considered this a tardy response that was a stinging reminder of Xinjian's low standing.
"A lot of our students came from the mountains," said Deng Huiying, the former long-time principal. "Their parents were migrant workers."
Xinjian is in the heart of the city of Dujiangyan. The lack of damage to the yellow-tiled kindergarten next door or to the Beijie Primary School a five-minute walk away has served as a reminder that proximity is not the same as equality.
Beijie is the city’s elite primary school, designated as a provincial-level "key" school, boasting the best facilities and the finest teachers. The kindergarten, meanwhile, was built and controlled directly by the city government of Dujiangyan. For years, Xinjian was controlled by a smaller, local township government, which had far less money and did little to improve the school.
In recent years, China's central government has gradually abolished primary school tuition and other fees to ease burdens on farmers and migrants. Beijing has also increased its payments to local governments for education, but the main burden remains on local authorities, and many find themselves strapped for cash or siphon it off.
When Xinjian was built in 1992, many parents worked for the Dongfeng Cement Factory. Company bosses donated 40 tons of cement. But that was not enough. "Everybody knew they didn't have enough cement," said Dai Chuanbin, an older man familiar with the project. "So they used a lot of sand."
Parents say the township government cut costs further by hiring farmers to do the work instead of trained construction crews. One former school official recalled that workers poured the foundation during such heavy rains that it collapsed. Another foundation had to be poured.
The school opened in 1993 and would quickly be overrun with students. The detached annex was rebuilt in 1998 after inspectors deemed it substandard. Ms. Deng, the former principal, recalled that nearby construction work in May 2006 caused the flooring in the main school building to shake violently. But she said she never had reason to believe the building was structurally unsound and never filed any written complaints with higher officials.
"If I'd thought the building was unsafe, there's no way I would have let the kids stay there," she said. When she saw the collapsed building, she fell on the ground, sobbing.
Several parents tell a different story. They say Ms. Deng and other school officials told them that the building was aging and unsafe, though they could provide no written proof. One father was told that Xinjian would soon be closed. Another, Zhu Junsheng, 44, claimed that Ms. Deng filed a report with Dujiangyan's education bureau complaining about the building.
"The education bureau said there was no money," said Mr. Zhu, sitting in front of a blue tent in a refugee camp a block from the school. "They didn't care."
"I just want to say: The government didn't do its job."
Nearly two weeks after the earthquake, Mr. Ma, the decommissioned soldier, keeps returning to the rubble of Xinjian. He smokes cigarette after cigarette and has not changed out of the Che Guevara T-shirt and blue jeans he wore on that frantic afternoon.
"That's where government officials send their children to nursery school," he said, pointing to the undamaged, yellow-tiled kindergarten.
Mr. Ma saved several children the day of the disaster but cannot shake the memory of one girl. Her leg had been pinned beneath a heavy concrete slab. Two small cranes had failed to free her. Her body temperature was quickly dropping. So Mr. Ma told her father, "She can keep her leg or her life."
The father was led away. Mr. Ma used a serrated knife he kept in his jeans. He said the job took three cuts across the girl's shin. "She will hate me when she is older if she has trouble with love," he said with a grim smile.
He does not know the girl's name. "I have dreams every night," he said. "She was very pretty. Very strong."
Deadly Engineering Shortcuts
Techniques for fortifying buildings to withstand earthquakes have been clearly understood for decades. Use high-quality concrete. Embed extra iron rods. Tie them tightly into bundles with strong wire. Ensure that components of floors, walls and columns are firmly attached. Pay special attention to columns, which are the key to having a building sway rather than topple.
Engineers are already trying to assess how much of the destruction on May 12 should be attributed to faulty construction during China's long and often helter-skelter building boom. The earthquake was so powerful, measuring at least 7.9 in magnitude, that a certain amount of damage could not be prevented. But engineering experts say Xinjian and some other schools in Sichuan were especially vulnerable.
Six structural engineers and earthquake experts asked by The New York Times to analyze an online photographic slide show of the wreckage at Xinjian concluded, independently, that inadequate steel reinforcement, or rebar, was used in the concrete columns supporting the school. They also found that the school’s precast, hollow concrete slab floors and walls did not appear to be securely joined together.
The widespread use of cheap, hollow slab floors is significant because numerous buildings with the same flooring collapsed during another Chinese earthquake in 1976, which devastated the city of Tangshan and killed at least 240,000. (A few buildings with the same flooring also fared poorly during the 1994 earthquake in California.)
"If the hollow core slabs are not adequately tied to the lateral frames, which seems to be the case in the photos, the structures are likely very flexible and would undergo large deformations under severe ground motions," said Mary Beth Hueste, an associate professor of engineering at Texas A&M University, in an e-mail message.
When such components are not securely joined, they are "extremely dangerous, like time bombs," said Xiao Yan, an expert in earthquake-resistant designs at the University of Southern California.
The most pronounced failing at Xinjian seemed to be inadequate steel reinforcement of the concrete columns supporting the school, experts said. There were too few rebar reinforcing rods and too little of the thin binding wire that holds the rebar together. And, critically, the steel bindings attaching the concrete flooring slabs were inadequate.
Times reporters are answering readers' questions about the earthquake, its aftermath and the Chinese government's response.
Xiaonian Duan, an engineer specializing in earthquake resilience for Arup, a multinational design consulting company whose head office is in London, said that concrete flooring panels fall apart during an earthquake if not strongly attached,
"like we see Legos collapse."
The Chinese government has known that many schools, especially in rural areas, are unsafe. Since 2001, the State Council, China's cabinet, has budgeted roughly $1.5 billion for a nationwide program to repair dangerous schools in rural areas. In 2006, Sichuan Province's government issued an urgent notice calling for localities to stop using substandard primary and middle schools.
"Unsafe buildings are the major hidden danger of school safety at present, and in recent years, accidents with death tolls and injuries were caused by collapsed schools," the provincial notice warned.
Dr. Xiao toured the disaster zone after this month's earthquake and found that many of the problems at Xinjian were common elsewhere. He said one reason for the widespread damage was that buildings in the region were not required to meet China's most stringent standards for seismic protection. He also noted that China rates overall building design codes from 1 to 4. Buildings rated 1 are considered "important" and must meet stricter design requirements. But the system rates schools only as a 3, which means no additional design protections are needed.
In the aftermath of the quake, a handful of bricklayers and builders have visited Xinjian Primary School out of professional curiosity. A builder from nearby Meishan City recognized the faulty columns and flooring problems. Then he picked up a chunk of concrete from the rubble and rubbed it in his hands.
"The ratio of sand and concrete isn't right," he said. "It fell down because of cheap materials."
In Search of Justice
The parents of Xinjian Primary School posted an online petition last Wednesday. They demanded justice for their children. Local police officials have promised an investigation, but the parents are not satisfied. They intend to protest again.
School represents hope in China. The parents do not express it exactly like that, but they saw education as their children's only chance. The cement factory that employed many parents - and provided cement for the school - went bankrupt in 2002. They now collect small welfare payments and hold down odd jobs to support their families.
Liao Minhui had aspirations for his daughter. He knew that Xinjian was considered inferior and that a better school might help her find a better life. So he tried to wheedle her into Beijie, the elite school. He said he offered thousands of yuan to gain her admission, to no avail. She died in the Xinjian rubble.
"I tried very hard," Mr. Liao said. "I tried to get help from every well-connected friend I have. Everything there is the best. The teachers are the best. The facilities are the best."
Jiang Xuezheng, 41, is a small, wiry man whose simple manner betrays his country upbringing in a village about 200 miles away. He has sold fruit in Dujiangyan for nearly a decade to support his family back in the village. But to do this, he lived apart from his son for eight years.
So last year, Mr. Jiang also paid to try to win his child admission to a city school. He chose Xinjian. To him, a peasant, a city school like Xinjian represented a step up. He paid a $1,400 fee to make the switch. His 9-year-old boy was admitted in September.
"My parents are still in the countryside, but I wanted my son to live with me," said Mr. Jiang, bowing his head and weeping. "I waited for eight years. Finally, I was together with my son. And then tragedy happens."