With 175 schools destroyed, China begins to lay blame

CORRECTION: A McClatchy story May 17 gave the wrong number of schools that were destroyed by the nation's massive earthquake, based on figures provided by the Chinese news agency, Xinhua. The actual number is 175 schools destroyed with a total of 8,365 classrooms.

BEIJING — In town after town in Sichuan province, shoddily built schools were among the first to tumble during this week’s huge quake, and officials Friday found themselves under tough questioning and vowing to punish anyone found responsible. Public finger-pointing has grown over what one newspaper columnist described as schools that "crumbled like houses of sand" during Monday's quake, whichnow is expected to leave a death toll of 50,000 people.

A senior official promised an investigation and possibly punishment if the schools were poorly built.

“We cannot exclude the possibility of bad quality construction of the (school) buildings. We will deal strictly with related problems after investigation,” Jiang Weixin, minister of housing and urban-rural development, told a news briefing after returning from a tour of the quake zone.

The state Xinhua news agency said 6,898 school buildings were among the 216,000 structures in Sichuan Province destroyed by the powerful quake.

In Dujiangyan, near the quake’s epicenter, a secondary school collapsed into a pile of rubble while other buildings around it suffered little or no damage.

Foreign experts said they were disquieted at the number of primary, middle and high schools that tumbled down from the magnitude 7.9 quake.

"To see so many schools in China collapse was a bit surprising," said Reginald DesRoches, a professor of earthquake-resistant engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. "When you see that type of pancaking, you can tell they just weren't designed with any seismic consideration in mind."

Some angry parents who lost their only children at collapsed schools blame corruption, saying local officials siphoned off funds earmarked for school construction, throwing up shoddy buildings and pocketing cash. Local people call such public works "tofu buildings" because they look good on the outside but are soft as soybean curd.

Experts paint a more complex picture, cautioning against blanket blame. They say the radical changes in the way China's government collects and spends money in the past two decades may also be a factor, putting stresses on poorer inland cities and towns with mandates to provide compulsory education through ninth grade but few funds to do so. Many schools are built on the cheap in disregard of building codes.

"Even without the corruption, you'd have substandard schools," said Shawn Shieh, a political scientist at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. who currently lives in Beijing. "What you have is a problem of resources not going to inland areas. ... It's part of a larger systemic issue."

During the quake, some huge schools became virtual tombs. The Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan collapsed and buried 900 students under tons of concrete. In Beichuan, northeast of the epicenter, a high school tumbled around 1,000 or so students. Only 360 were rescued. At the Yinghua high school in Shifang County, 300 students are yet to be located. In Mianzhu city, one of the worst hit, seven schools collapsed.

Television and newspapers have carried repeated images of disaster workers removing bodies of children from the schools, sometimes laying them out in rows. "We saw elegant government buildings remain intact while dozens of schools crumbled like houses of sand," columnist Zhang Jinghua wrote in The Economic Observer, a national newspaper.

In many developed countries, public schools, hospitals and police stations are built using tougher earthquake-resistant standards to serve as refuges for vulnerable populations.

A common way to strengthen buildings is to use steel reinforcement, DesRoches said, but adding steel can increase building costs "anywhere from two to five percent." The steel helps masonry buildings sway rather than crumble, he added.

From looking at photos of the destruction in Sichuan, DesRoches said he could tell that in some schools "there was no steel at all." "The main material in these schools is precast slab," said Shi Weixing, head of the earthquake-resistant structural engineering office at Tongji University in Shanghai. "Once there's an earthquake, they can be very fragile."

Shi said wealthier cities, like Shanghai, have forbidden the use of precast concrete slab construction, considering it unsafe, and requiring reinforced concrete.

Building codes in China were toughened after a devastating 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, barely 70 miles from Beijing, that killed an estimated 240,000 people. The Chinese public was not told of the magnitude of that quake for nearly a month afterward. The Sichuan quake has brought about an easing of censorship, but the issue of inadequate school construction is only slipping into the media in commentaries.

"We cannot afford not to raise uneasy questions about the structural quality of school buildings," the English-language China Daily said after the quake.

Some critics are more blunt in their assessments on personal blogs. "To the kids who were put to sleep in the rubble, we are sorry. We failed to provide you solid schools," wrote Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, on his blog.

(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Di contributed.)