Media Banned From Quake School

Parents across southwestern China are struggling to hold local officials accountable for allegedly shoddy construction standards in school buildings that collapsed during the May 12 earthquake.

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Destroyed school The Sichuan earthquake destroyed school buildings disproportionately.
Photo: RFA

HONG KONG—Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have prevented journalists from gaining access to a school that collapsed during the May 12 earthquake, amid widespread calls for investigations into the quality of school buildings.

The Sichuan provincial Public Security Bureau has ordered all media to stop covering Juyuan Middle School, where buildings collapsed during the quake, killing 280 students and teachers, a local official said.

“On June 2, the Sichuan provincial Public Security Bureau ordered all media to leave Juyuan Middle School alone,” an official at the Dujiangyan Disaster Relief Information Center said.

She said police had cordoned off the area. “Some parents are very emotionally disturbed and they are not emotionally stable. So for the time being, authorities have to make some temporary rules,” she said.

Police have cordoned off the school site and escorted two foreign journalists away from the school, grieving parents at the site said.

“The school site has been sealed off. No media are allowed,” a woman surnamed Dong who lost a child in the collapse of the school said. “More than 100 police are present at the scene. Today, Australian journalists were expelled from the school site,” she added.

Lawyers hard to find

She said local officials had pledged to give each victim’s family 32,000 yuan (U.S. $4,600) in comfort money—higher than the standard 5,000 yuan compensation for other quake victims.

Dong said some parents had already received 12,000 yuan. “The government has pledged to take care of our health care and retirement, but it never said anything about seeking justice for our innocent children,” she said.

She said the parents had hoped to band together and find a lawyer to sue the government for negligence, but so far no lawyer had been willing to take it on in the absence of an expert evaluation of the school’s construction.

“No one dares to take the case,” she said. “It all depends on how government defines the nature of the school buildings. If they say it was shoddy construction, then it was shoddy construction, but if they say it wasn’t then it wasn’t.”

“If the court takes the case, it is like government suing itself. Therefore that’s unlikely to happen. We don’t want to withdraw our case by simply taking the 32,000 yuan from the government. We are hoping that a volunteer lawyer may take our case.”

The story is being repeated in cities, towns, and villages around the quake-hit zone, where 10,000 schoolchildren are believed to have died in collapsed school buildings when the 7.9 magnitude tremor hit.

Call for investigation

In Shifang city, more than 200 parents called on the municipal government to publish a conclusion about safety standards in the collapsed school buildings.

“We want the government to tell us whether it was the earthquake or man-made factors that brought down the school buildings,” grieving parent Wang Zhenfu said. “The township government told us that experts would come to investigate on June 5, but no one showed up either yesterday or today.”

“They told us that the experts were very busy. They are just dragging out the issue as long as they can.”

Wang said parents were demanding a clear set of results from the official investigation by June 10.

Shifang government official Jiang Zhi said that could take time. “We have requested that the experts take samples from the collapsed buildings and send the samples to the proper authorities,” he said. “But it takes time to draw a conclusion. Our area is the epicenter, and there are many damaged buildings that need to be tested.”

‘Not for the money’

Since the earthquake the government and the insurance companies have paid out a total of 29,000 yuan in compensation to parents who lost their children when their schools collapsed in Longju township, Shifang.

Several hundred parents whose children died in Longju have been petitioning the local authorities to pursue whoever was responsible for the collapse of the school buildings, saying that shoddy construction was to blame for the deaths of their children.

“They’re not doing this for the money. They are doing it to get justice on behalf of all the children who died. There were serious quality problems with the buildings that collapsed. The educational authorities determined before the earthquake that the building was dangerous,” he said. The building was given some cosmetic changes by the school leadership and passed the safety inspection.

Meanwhile, a parent surnamed Ma from Mianzhu city, whose 17-year-old daughter was killed when her school collapsed, said that help was very slow to arrive: too late for his only child.

“The school buildings collapsed during the earthquake,” Ma said. “Many children were yelling for help under the rubble. We were trying to help them, but we couldn’t, as we didn’t have the tools.”

Inexperienced rescue teams

“We helped to remove bricks and helped the heavy machines to remove large pieces of concrete slabs. The rescue teams didn’t show up until May 14,” he said. “They saved seven or eight people from the debris. One of my daughter’s friends told me that many kids were still buried under the rubble. My daughter was found and pulled out on May 15, but she had already died.”

Ma said many of the soldiers and armed police who manned the rescue teams were very young. While some of them were very brave, they appeared to have little experience in recuing quake victims. Local officials, he said, were anxious to look good in the eyes of their superiors.

“Right after the quake, the local government reported to the higher authorities that we were able to help ourselves, but actually, we were not.”

China’s official statistics say that 69,127 were confirmed dead from the quake, with more than 1 million people found and rescued. Total donations from China and overseas had reached U.S.$6.34 billion, which would be closely monitored by national auditors to ensure it was properly used, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao and Qiao Long, and in Cantonese by Bat Tzi-mo. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Jia Yuan and Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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