This made me cry.
Searching the rubble of a Chinese school, parents’ grief turns to fury
Tania Branigan in Dujiangyan
Wednesday May 14 2008
Tenderly, she eased the clean fleece over her little boy’s hand and up around his plump shoulder. The steady rain washing the town’s streets had chilled the usually warm Sichuan weather.
He didn’t look alarmed or frightened but dirt and blood were caked on his forehead. She touched his hair and then they pulled up the zipper on the bodybag and carried him away. Only her husband marked her howls. The whole street was seething with misery and anger. She had seen her son, at least; most of the children still lay in the rubble of Xinjian elementary school.
Four hundred and fifty pupils, aged between six and 12, were there when the quake hit yesterday at 2.28pm. A fortunate few were pulled out within hours by anxious parents scrabbling at the wreckage with bare hands. A handful more were saved overnight, after troops arrived to take over the rescue effort. Doctors were unsure how many had been taken to hospital – perhaps 15, perhaps 50.
What was certain was that hundreds more remained trapped and that hope was ebbing by the moment.
“There’s a slight chance they could save a few more now; probably not very many,” said a white-coated doctor.
Even the medics were raw-eyed and anxious. The sobs, wails and shouting mixed with sirens and the steady patter of rain. Under bright umbrellas, parents and relatives stood in whatever they grabbed when the quake hit: dressing gowns, slippers, straw hats. Some bore the bruises and scars of the previous day. Scores of doctors and nurses were waiting to help survivors from the school. But the scale of the challenge – and the collapse of the nearby hospital – meant that resources appeared to be limited. One child was carried to an ambulance by the arms and legs, apparently because there were not enough stretchers.
One man showed his raw, filthy hands. He didn’t want to give his name but said his 12-year-old son, Futian, was still in the wreckage.
“Before the troops came we found more than 10 people. I saved two students and one teacher but I didn’t get my own child out,” he said.
“I’m already 39 and he’s 44,” said his wife. “We had only one child. Why should I live on now?”
Like many parents here, their mood was turning from raw grief to fury as they waited for news. Twenty four hours after the quake they were losing hope, and only rage was left. They blamed everyone: soldiers for coming too late, the builders for cutting corners, officials for – they claimed – siphoning off cash. “The contractors can’t have been qualified. It’s a ‘tofu’ [soft and shoddy] building. Please, help us release this news,” her husband said. “About 450 were inside, in nine classes, and it collapsed completely from the top to the ground. It didn’t fall over; it was almost like an explosion.”
His neighbour, still half hoping for a sight of her daughter, burst out angrily: “Why isn’t there money to build a good school for our kids? Chinese officials are too corrupt and bad.
“These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse – the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children.
“This is not a natural disaster – this is done by humans.”
Intravenous drips, cigarette butts and scraps of children’s clothes were trodden under foot as families surged forward, trying to force their way through the lines of paramilitary police and troops guarding the site. “They haven’t told us anything. They won’t even let us see the place now,” shouted one mother, trying not to cry.
A man with a red umbrella paused to watch the scene. “My neighbours had two kids here,” he said quietly. “One was on the first floor and ran out but was hit by a falling brick and died. The other one is still in there.” Residents of Dujiangyan know other places were worse hit. Most of the buildings in the town are still standing, but no one dared enter them and many bore long cracks down their sides. The squares and roadsides were packed with residents huddling under tarpaulins, carpets and anything they could find. Too scared to go inside, they stayed out all night.
As the day wore on, an exodus began. People clustered by the roadside to hitch lifts, wait hopefully for buses or simply tramp along the long road to Chengdu to find shelter. Those without umbrellas covered their heads with plastic bags, towels and books in a vain attempt to stay dry. Some held bulging cloth bundles or backpacks; others fled without anything.
Dujianyang was a thriving town until yesterday, and the debris hinted at its previously prospering life. Now, all anyone wanted was to find safety and those they loved.
Not far from Xinjian school, at the Long Tan Wan housing compound, a young couple stared, dazed, at the remains of their apartment block: a pitiless jumble of tin basins, curtains, books, chairs, slabs of concrete and the twisted metal that used to be window frames. Their one-and-a-half year old daughter, Xixi, was somewhere inside. Her father drew the back of his hand across his eyes.
“I tried to get to her myself, but it all started falling down and I couldn’t carry on,” he said. “I called the police, but they wouldn’t come. They said they had bigger disasters.”
From my Uncle Glenn’s blog.