Why Did the School Building Collapse?

(Drunkpiano's blog)  Who To Blame?  May 28, 2008.

[in translation]

The parents are heart-broken over the deaths of their children and they are calling for those responsible for the "tofu dreg" school buildings to be found.

The central government says that it will conduct a thorough investigation.

The investigators go to the school principal, who says: We submitted the proposal to inspect/enhance the school building to the Department of Education a long time ago.

The investigators go to the Department of Education, which says: We submitted the inspection/construction report to the city/county government leaders a long time ago.

The investigators go to the city/county government leaders, who say: We don't have money -- such a document says that the construction cost for a school building is XXX RMB per square meter and we only have so much in the budget for education.  What can we do?  We ask the provincial government for money, but they won't give it to us.

The investigators go to the provincial government leaders, who say: The central government has stipulated out that the education budget will come from the city/county governments themselves.

The investigators go to the architect, who says: The code requires the building to withstand a magnitude 7 earthquake.  But along comes a magnitude 8 earthquake.  What can I do?

The investigators go to the construction team, which says:  The prefabricated slabs can collapse easily, but aren't they cheaper?  The budget is just so much.  What can we do?

The investigators go to the quality assurance inspector, who says:  Party A wants the building to be delivered immediately.  Who has the time to check everything out in detail?

I write these things not so much to heap scorn on "the bureaucrats passing the buck around," but because I do not know who is to be specifically blamed.  The school, the department of education, the city/county government leaders, the provincial government leaders, the architect, the construction team, the quality inspector ... they also seem to have a moral responsibility but it is not clear who bears legal responsibility.


Under the following circumstances, it is easy to determine legal responsibility:

(1) The construction team skimps on material in order to increase its profits, in which case the construction team and the quality acceptance inspector have legal responsibility.

(2) The architect was sloppy and did not establish shock-resistant measures in accordance with the building code, in which case the architect and the quality acceptance inspector have legal responsibility.

(3) The education department and the local government were involved in corrupt practice or otherwise take away school construction funds, or else they accepted bribes to award the construction projects to unqualified builders, in which case the relevant officials have legal responsibility.

(4) The government officials decided to "do nothing" about the reports on dangerous buildings in spite of having adequate funds and resources, in which case they have legal responsibility.

Many people were irate when the issue of "tofu dreg school buildings" was exposed.  This is understandable among the disaster victims, especially the parents whose children were injured or dead.  But for the media and the "public intellectuals," if they want to reflect, they ought to reflect rationally.  Many of these people act as if they personally witnessed the "corrupt officials" accepting bribes from the "construction team."  But I prefer to withhold my conclusion until the following facts become clear:

It is not as if I don't want to jump out and scold people.  After all, it is joyful to scold people and it draws a large audience.  But I thought that the media and public intellectuals should have the courage to acknowledge their own ignorance, which is just as important as the courage to scold people.

The distinction between rational reflection and abusive reflection lies in the fact only the former is capable of coming up with constructive solutions.  For example: Should the shock-resistant standards be revised?  Should the architectural designs for classroom buildings be revised?  Should the education investment relationship among the various levels of government be revised?  How to increase the transparency in bidding for public construction project?  What is the qualification to become a quality acceptance inspector?  How to increase the investment in basic education and its corresponding transparency?  How to inspect and reinforce all the school buildings in the seismically active areas?  ...   Meanwhile, abusive reflection usually leads to only one conclusion: Kill the corrupt officials!

Many people like to demand to "kill the corrupt officials" whenever something happens.  I tend to feel that the "tofu dreg projects" reveal that there is a lack of professional ethics in many Chinese industries and occupations.  If a quality acceptance inspector fails to do his job, should the "corrupt officials" be blamed?  You may say that "at the root of the problems, the corrupt officials are to be blamed."  If all the Chinese people believe this logic, they will sit down and do nothing except to hurl invectives.  Many people often feel that "killing a few corrupt officials" will solve the problem.  The emperor Zhu Yuanchang killed many "corrupt officials" but the Ming dynasty was one of the most corrupt ever.  Following the spirit of the rule of law, I feel that any punishment must be based upon knowing the following:  The evidence shows that a certain person at a certain time at a certain place used a certain method to break a certain law.

The distinction between the spirit of the rule of law and the spirit of "class struggle" lies in the basis of determining whether a crime was committed depends on the individual's actions and not his "group identity" (such as being a landlord, or a rich peasant, or a government official, or a real estate developer, or an economist, or a democratic movement activist, or a 'wheeler' ...).  ...

(Southern Weekend)  Fuxin Elementary School Number Two, Mianzhu city: How was the collapsed school building constructed?  By Ding Buzhi and Zhu Hongjun.  May 29, 2008.

[in translation]

Half a month since the earthquake took place, Elementary School Number Two in Fuxin Town, Mianzhu City in which 127 students died under a collapsed classroom building is still in the vortex of a whirlpool.

The parents of the dead school children cannot comprehend why not a single building around the classroom building had collapsed.  Most of the buildings in town including those built in the 1960's were able to survive the earthquake.  Therefore, they wondered if this classroom building was a "tofu dregs" building (that is, shoddily constructed).

On May 25, more than 100 parents of dead school children held framed photos of their departed love ones and walked towards Deyang City to demand an answer.  On the way, Mianzhu city party secretary Jiang Guohua got down on his knees four times to beg them to stop, but to no avail.  On the afternoon of the next day, Jiang Guohua told Southern Weekend that a work team consisting of architectural experts from outside Mianzhu city is presently making a thorough investigation of the collapsed classroom building in a fair and just manner.

"If the classroom building was determined to have an engineering problem, we will handle this seriously in accordance with the relevant laws.  We will investigate to the very bottom, and we will provide the families with the appropriate compensation."  Jiang Guohua promised that the results of the examination will be announced within one month.

The Southern Weekend reporters interviewed the designer, the builder, the town party secretary at the time and reconstructed the entire construction process of the school building nineteen years ago.  We wanted to try to determine if the deaths of the 127 students was due to a natural disaster or a manmade one.

One parent said, "Even the homes that we built for ourselves wouldn't be using such slim steel bars.  Who designed this classroom building?  Who built it?  Who allowed it to pass inspection?"

According to a teacher who was at the scene, the Fuxin Number Two Elementary School building collapsed in less than 10 seconds' time.

At 14:28 on the afternoon of May 12, 2008, two minutes before the classes started, the teachers were still in their office building.  Most of the students had just woke up from their midday nap.  Without any warning, the three-story classroom building began to shake violently and collapsed, with almost 200 surprised and scared children were buried in the rubble.  "The building fell down like a heap."  Just over ten minutes after the earthquake, Sang Min (the mother of the Number Two Sixth Grade student Zhang Yi) rode to the school on her bicycle and she saw only a rubble.

A tally afterwards showed that 127 students died in this incident.  Dozens of students were wounded.  Most of the students were the only sons or daughters in their families.  The parents who heard the news rushed over to the scene and began to dig madly with their bare hands.  They pulled up the huge concrete slabs with their hands, drawing blood on their own bodies.

Zhang Qi of the Number One Sixth Grade was eventually found by his father Zhang Zhongjun at the mouth of the stairway exit.  Both Zhang Zhongjun and his wife come from three generations of only sons or daughters.  The family of 15 people from both sides of the family sieved through the rubble.  In just over 20 days, Zhang Qi would have graduated from here.  "He could have gotten out of the building with just one or two more steps.  The distance between life and death was as thin as a thread."  Zhang Zhongjun with the blood-shot eyes used his two fingers to draw a thin line.

When night fell that night, Sang Min found his son Zhang Yi in the stairwell of the rubble.  His entire body was broken and his face was mashed up.  Since all the school children wore uniforms, many parents could not identify their own children.  Sang Ming identified the body of her son through the t-shirt that he wore underneath the school uniform.

Liu Minggui found his daughter Liu Lianyu at 11am on the next morning.  At her moment of death, she had her hands upwards: the building was collapsing on her.

The students in the two classes of the Fourth Grade were taking tests in the same classroom on the first floor.  When the disaster struck, the 75 students could not exit out of the doorway all at once.  39 of them perished.  The students of the Grade Three were called out by their teacher to "breath in some fresh air" after their midday nap, and they all survived.  According to the parents, Fuxin Elementary School Number Two used to be the Wufu Middle School.  In 2007, Fuxin and Wufu towns merged together and the schools were reorganized.  The former Wufu Middle School was merged with another middle school, and the vacated classroom building became the Fuxin Number Two Elementary School.

Last September, the Grades Three To Six students moved into the empty three-story classroom building.  Previously, they were studying in the tiled buildings on the side.  Those tiled buildings were still standing after the earthquake.  Thus, the Grade One and Two students who did not move into the classroom building survived.

It was not only those tiled buildings.  Basically, there were no collapsed buildings in the town except for this classroom building.  This was hard to accept for the parents who lost their cihldren.  They found out at the scene that the exterior walls fell down completely and had no linkage with any concrete reinforced with steel bars.  It all came down like a stack of building blocks.  The broken main beam had four steel beams of uneven widths, with the smallest one about the width of an adult's small finger.  "If we were building our own houses, we wouldn't use steel bars this small," said one parent.  "Who designed this classroom building?  Who built it?  Who let it pass inspection?

One of the reason why the classroom building collapsed was that the architectural design did not consider any earthquake-proof features.  The blueprint did not have the structural pillars that resist earthquakes.

On May 25, a teacher named Wu was found near the collapsed school building.  Wu was responsible for logistics at the school before.  After the earthquake, Wu rushed over from Lanzhou city.  When he saw that the tiled buildings around the school were standing, he breathed a sigh of relief.  Those buildings were constructed during his term.  According to him, the three-story classroom building began construction in 1988 under the leadeship of the former Wufu Elementary School principal Liu Weijing in the capacity of the town education committee executive director.

On the evening of that day, the Southern Weekend reporter reached the now retired Liu Weijing at his home.  Liu Weijing said that on the previous day, the Mianzhu city disciplinary committee and department of education had sent people to ask him about construction at the Fuxin Number Two Elementary School.

Liu Weijing said that the town was responsible for its schools in that era.  Since the school facilities consisted only of four single-storey houses, it was far from adequate.  In 1988, due to the policy of free nine-year education, the town decided to construct a school building.  At the time, the construction was assigned to a constructing team in Dongbei town (Mianzhu city), whose leader was Zhang Yuesheng.

At a certain farm in Dongbei town, the Southern Weekend reporter found Zhang Yuesheng who has changed profession.  According to him, the person who was directly responsible for the construction was deputy director Jiang Xuyin.

Many years has passed since.  Like Zhang Yuesheng, Jiang Xuyin is no longer in the construction business.  He said that on the morning of that day, the Mianzhu city party disciplinary committee people had obtained the original construction information from him.  Most important were the blueprint for the Wufu Middle School and the inspection documents.

The project completion report provided by Jiang for the Wufu Middle School project showed that in 1988, the Wufu town government decided to invest 160,000 RMB to build a classroom building at the Wufu Middle School.  Most astonishingly, the blueprint for the classroom building was a photocopy.

"We used a reproduced blueprint for the building," said Jiang Xuyin.  "This blueprint was copied from that for the Shidi Middle School in nearby Shidi own." These blueprints were approved by the Mianzhu county (note: Mianzhi had not been promoted from a county to a city at the time) eduction department.  "During the construction, the town made more demands and the blueprint was revised in many places."  Jiang Xuyin said that the changes included adding another floor, changing the rooftop, making the rectangular roof beams smaller and so on.

The aforementioned report stated that the building consists of three stories, with four classrooms per floor occupying 1,073 square meters.  Construction began in June 1988 and was completed in May 1989.  The project took 11 months, which was 5 months longer than the original schedule.  The reason for the delay was that the original two-storey design was altered to three storeys.  At the time of the change, the two-storey was about to be completed.  Therefore, "all the materials had to be reconsidered."

On the construction blueprint, the other changes included changing the rectangular beam from 500mm x 240 mm to 500mm x 200mm and the rooftop from tiles to flat concrete slabs.  Apart from this, Jiang Xuyin said that all construction materials including steel bars, concrete and the processes adhered strictly to the blueprint.

Jiang said that one of the reasons why the classroom building collapsed during the earthquake was that the architectural design was flawed.  The blueprint did not consider any shock-resistant functionalities.  He said that the blueprint did not the structural pillars that are the main features to resist earthquakes.  In architecture, the structural pillars placed in multi-storey buildings with reinforced steel bars and connected to the surrounding beams and the foundations in order to increase the earthquake resistance of the building.

He thought that  those kinds of buildings were designed to withstand earthquakes of as much as magnitude 11.

At the time, the bill for the construction of the school buildings was first footed by the construction team.  In 1991, the construction team prompted the Wufu town government for payment.

The quality acceptance document provided by Jiang Xuyin showed that the quality assurance team held this opinion: "The construction quality met all requirements.  Payment is agreed upon." The quality acceptance units included Wufu Middle School, Wufu town government, Dongjiao United Construction team and its supervising department and the Number Three Design Studio of the Mianzhu County Construction Planning Institute.  At the time, there was no supervisory department for construction.

Then Wufu town party secretary and education committee director was Sun Anquan.  He is presently the vice-chairman of the Mianzhu city Communist Party Political Consultative Conference.  According to the recollection of Sun Anquan, the county department of education allocated 50,000 RMB for the construction of Wufu Middle School.  The Wufu town government was responsible for the remaining costs.  During the school construction, the town party committee's main job was to mediate and find the funds.  The money available at the time was far from enough.

Liu Weijing said that the budget was tight and savings in the school construction was made as much as possible.  This was a situation that existed everywhere.  He said that when Wufu county rebuilt the elementary schools (which were one-storey buildings) in 1990, the school came up with its own blueprints.  Based upon the prices at the time, the architectural design fees were around 3 RMB per square meter.  That is to say, the 1,000+ square meter Wufu Middle School would cost more than 3,000 RMB in architectural fees.  That money was enough to build half a classroom.

At the time, the construction team paid for the construction of the classroom building up front.  Jiang ZXuyin said that in 1991, they had demanded payment from Wufu town.  The Southern Weekend reporter saw that the demand for payment notice indicated that the classroom building consisted of three projects for Wufu town totalling 270,000 RMB.  The construction team had fronted 120,000 RMB so far.  "The town budget was tight, so they hoped to spend less for more," Said Jiang Xuyin.  The money was eventually paid off several years later through additional educational levies and loans.

The project completion report also mentioned that during the construction, the pillar on the second floor was discovered not to have set two days after being poured due to problems with the quality of the concrete.  The workers were organized to demolish that section and then the concrete was poured again.  "In spite of severe capital shortage, the three-storey building was successfully completed."

The parent Xiong Yonghao who lost a child said that bricks fragments, wood particles and other material were visible to the eye in the cross-section of a weight-bearing pillar that had snapped.

Nineteen years have passed.  There have been several waves of persons in charges at the Wufu Middle School, the town government and the Mianzhu city education department.  But this classroom building was not repaired or reinforced in any significant way during this period.

According to Fuxin Middle School vice-principal Li Hua, the safety inspections for school buildings is conducted mainly by the education department and the schools themselves.  There is routine safety inspection each year.

According to Huang Qingtai who lost a grandchild, he had asked the current school principal whether there was any problem with the classroom building detected during the annual routine inspection.  He received the answer: There was no notice from above concerning any reconstruction.  "When you are sick, do you go to see the doctor or do you wait for the doctor to look you up?"  He believes that the annual routine inspection was not up to standard.

The parents of the dead school children are bitter about the fact that this classroom building accommodates more than 300 students but only has a single passageway that is 2 meters wide.  There is no fire safety exit.  Li Hua mentioned that the classroom building at another middle school also only has one stairwell.  After the inspection by the fire department and the education department, that school installed an additional stairwell last year.  That new stairwell proved to be very useful during the earthquake.

According to Mianzhu city Department of Education director Tang Jiancheng, the Fuxin Number Two Elementary School classroom building should have additional stairwells as well.  But since it is connected to the teachers' office building on the second floor by a bridge, that was taken to be an escape exit.  In reality, that life-saving iron bridge broke apart as soon as the earthquake hit.  Thus, the students in the building could only rush towards the one stairwell.

Sang Min said that the bodies of 50 to 60 students were found at the collapsed stairwell after the earthquake.  The bodies of the students were stacked one on top of another.

A certain director of an institute of architectural design and study in Jiangsu province said that he was making assessments in the disaster zone after the earthquake.  He inspected the Fuxin Number Two Elementary Two School and he confirmed that the entire classroom building did not have structural pillars.  This was a design flaw in the building.

This expert also said that he was able to to lift a brick off the wall easily:  "This proves that the building was low on concrete composition."  He thought that he was certain that there were definitely problems in the construction.

Xiong Yonghao is the father of a deceased sudent.  He observed that in a broken pillar there were visible brick pieces and wood in the cross-section of a broken concrete-steel section.  Xiong Yonghao works in construction himself.  After the incident, he was elected by the parents of the deceased schoolchildren to work with the experts to examine the classroom building.  He thought that this kind of concrete pillar is less able to bear the weight.

As to how a two-storey building can be altered to three storeys, these experts said that construction should not be allowed to proceed without discussion and reforcement.

When Huang Chenggang received a telephone call from the Southern Weekend reporter, he learned that the collapsed building was based upon the blueprint that he drew.  For the past 19 years, he had been unaware of this.

Jiang Xuyin said that the blueprint had been drawn by Huang Chenggang.  The bluepirnt also had the signature of Mianzhu city Architectural Planning Design Department Number Three Design Office senior worker Gao Gongkong.  At the time, Huang Chenggang was a technician at the Shidi Construction Company and he became the manager of the company eventually.  Today, he has changed profession to become the sales manager of a white wine enterprise.  Our reporter was able to contact Huang Chenggang by telephone.

On the evening of May 26, Huang Chenggang received the call from the Southern Weekend reporter and that was when he found out that the collapsed school building was based upon an architectural blueprint that he drew.  Previous to that, he had been totally unaware for the past 19 years.  During this earthquake, his own niece was buried in the rubble of Fuxin Number Two Elementary School.  When his own daughter viewed the scene of the disaster, she was bitter about the designer and the builder.  When she found out that his father was the original author of the blueprint of the school building, she did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Huang Chenggang said that he was depending on the Mianzhu county architectural design department.  If the blueprint was approved by the design department, it was usable.

"How can a photocopied blueprint be used for construction?" Huang Chenggang believed that while a design blueprint can be reproduced, the geological survey cannot be reproduced.  The geological condition for each location is different.  It was a mistake to be using a photocopied blueprint to begin construction.

Without seeing the structural diagram, Huang Chenggang cannot recall whether the blueprint had structural pillars.  At the time, many low buildings did not have structural pillars, and there were no strong state requirements to do so.

As to why the Shidi Middle School which had the same design did not collapse, he thought that "if the construction had adhered to the design blueprint, there wouldn't be any problems." He believed that his design blueprint had been pirated and then modified arbitrarily.  "I do not admit to being the designer of the Fuxin Number Two Elementary School," said Huang Chenggang.

According to the director of an institute of architectural design of a certain university in Jiangsu, the building blueprint is now available along with the actual condition of the building after the earthquake.  When the building is simulated, it will be known whether the building collapse was due to the building design or the construction process.

On May 26, Mianzhu city party secretary Jiang Guohua was interviewed by Southern Weekend.  He said that the city has sent out a team to investigate the problems about the classroom building of the Fuxin Number Two Elementary School in a thorough manner.  "In order to guarantee the independent nature of the investigation, the team members are mostly Sichuan province experts with none of the experts in Mianzhi city being included.  We have asked the provincial government and other cities to cooperate by sending their experts.  The investigation will be fair and just."

In 1992, Sang Min graduated from this school building.  She said that the school building had a new paint job after some cracks were found.  Fifteen years later, her son Zhang Yi moved into the same school building.  Eight months later, he was buried in the rubble.

A white banner hangs on the road outside the school with words written in blood.  The parents bit on their fingers and use blood to write down the names of their names and eternal ages: Liu Zhimei, 10 and a half years old; Liu Guiyu, 11 years old; Zhang Yi, 12 years old; Zhang Qi, 13 years old ... the Fuxin Number Two Elementary School classroom building, dead at 19 years old.

After the earthquake, the parents erected a temporary mourning hall by the rubble of the classroom building.  On May 25 in the sunlight, eight piles of rubble dug up during the rescue surrounded the mourning hall like eight great graves.  The parents hugged framed photographs of their dead children and spread themselves around the mourning hall.

Small children from different grades hid behind the photograph frames in this small temporary mourning hall.  The fames contained black flowers and are spaced evenly like school desks.  The difference is that a mourning hall has taken the place of the classrooms.  The students are childish, pure and brilliant.  Each of them are wordlessly smiling in the photos and their eyes are looking at the world outside the mourning hall.  It is as if the class is not over yet, the school bell hasn't rung yet and they haven't left.

(SCMP)  Parents mourn the loss of a generation.  Ng Tze-wei in Mianzhu and Bill Savadove in Dujiangyan.  June 2, 2008.

The parents whose children died when Fuxin No2 Primary School collapsed in the Sichuan quake mourned their loss yesterday amid the building's ruins and marched to the government office to demand justice.  In the heat, the walk from Fuxin to Mianzhu town took longer than usual. But the parents of about 50 children - each tightly clutching photos of their lost children - insisted on making the 90-minute journey, saying they wanted to do something for their lost ones on this day.  "It's Children's Day. We always take our children out on this day, since they do not have to go to school," said Xiong Ying, whose daughter Liu Xinyue would have turned 11 on May 23. "We want to show our children what the town looks like, and also the beautiful tents we heard of, which they would like very much."

They also wanted an official explanation for what they believed was a tragedy tied to "tofu projects" - namely shoddy construction and corruption. They were expecting some information yesterday, but were told they would have to wait at least until June 20.  But the parents abandoned the march when another group of emotional parents from Jiulong Primary School joined them. The Fuxin parents did not want to appear to be troublemakers and they believed Jiulong's collapse was a different case.

"We do not trust the local government. We hope the central government can intervene and help us," said single father Wang Xingxi, a construction worker. "I regret not having spent enough time with her," he said on the verge of crying for his daughter. "I only seek justice for her."

In Fuxin, only the three-storey school building collapsed. All buildings nearby remained intact.  After the quake, parents rushed to the school and used their hands trying to dig out their children. They were devastated to find 127 bodies. Amid the debris, they also found that no steel reinforcements held the walls to the ground, some steel rods were thinner than fingers, and the concrete was mixed with wood and brick pieces.

On May 25, about 100 angry parents marched to the Deyang city government offices to find out what caused the collapse of the school apart from the quake. Jiang Guohua , the party secretary of Mianzhu, a city under Deyang who administers Fuxin, knelt four times begging the parents not to continue their march.  Since then experts have been collecting samples of the building's foundation and debris.

Shortly after dawn yesterday, parents began gathering at the school ruins, placing the photos of their lost children in a tent pitched on the debris. Wreaths and banners that read "Our children died unjustly" and "Our children did not die in an earthquake but shoddy construction" lined the road to the school. A banner "June 1st in Heaven" was hung across the tent.

Some teachers also returned to mourn, but they were criticised by the parents, who claimed that they had done little to save their children. Media reports said that only one of the teachers died in the quake.  The township chief and vice-chiefs paid their respects in the morning, but could not give parents any answers.

Deyang's planning department vice-chief Deng Yu also confirmed that the original blueprint was a photocopy of another school in the area; more bad news the parents already knew from a newspaper report.

Xiong Yonghao, father of grade five student Xiong Yin, said the government had yet to provide safety assessment reports and the original approval certificate of the school building when construction was completed in 1989. The parents held a quiet sit-in at the entrance to the government's temporary control centre yesterday, refusing to go inside for talks.

(Caijing)  Why Did So Many Sichuan Schools Collapse?  By staff reporters Yang Binbin, Zhao Hejuan, Li Zhigang, Chang Hongxiao, Zhang Yingguang, Chenzhong, Xiaolu and intern reporter Zhang Bolin.  June 17, 2008.

International Children’s Day was celebrated with sadness in Mianyang, a city in the heart of earthquake-shaken Sichuan Province. Parents in mourning arranged photos of the 128 children they lost atop debris from the collapsed Fuxing No. 2  Primary School. They renamed the event “Children’s Day in Heaven.”

Bi Kaiwei, father of a deceased 12-year-old, said his daughter was a dancer with beautiful eyes. Ever since her body was pulled from the rubble, the mother has followed a daily routine – in memorial. Each morning she carries her daughter’s photo to what used to be the school, and each night she brings it home.

Parental grief has spread like a pall over Sichuan. Thousands of schools with children inside collapsed during the magnitude 8 earthquake on the afternoon of May 12. Many young victims were killed by falling concrete and bricks.

Afterward, many parents demanded explanations. They wanted to know why the buildings collapsed so easily. Official data and a Caijing investigation of five crumbled schools has helped shed light on the answer.

A Ministry of Education official, Han Jin, told the media May 16 that 6,898 classrooms collapsed across Sichuan. Two weeks later, the publication 21st Century Business Herald reported that nearly 2 million square meters of school space had crumbled in the quake, killing 4,737 students and injuring more than 16,000.

A government investigation of the tragedy continues. Currently, the central government’s education and construction ministries are divided over whether to blame the size of the earthquake or poor quality construction. At the core of the debate is a simple question: Are schools in China more prone to collapse than other buildings?

A graphic reply to that question can be found at the Fuxing school site. The building where Bi’s daughter was busy studying with classmates was completely shattered when the quake struck. But many buildings surrounding the school survived and stand intact even today, towering over the debris.

What happened at Fuxing mirrored tragedies in cities across Sichuan. Two buildings at the Juyuan Middle School were the only structures that completely collapsed in the city of Dujiangyan, killing 240 students. Similar stories were told in communities across the region, including Mianyang, Mianzhu and Shifang.

Caijing’s investigation of five schools that collapsed showed that none of the building sites had undergone a geological survey prior to construction. From day one, a combination of problematic design and poor construction, coupled with geological peril, meant these schools were time bombs waiting to be triggered by a natural disaster.

Behind the Standards

Strong shaking can cause buildings to tumble in one of two ways – in a brittle or ductile collapse, said Wang Bangjin, an engineer at the Ministry of Transportation. In a brittle collapse, a building can crumble to dust in a few seconds. In a ductile collapse, a damaged building can stand for a short while, allowing time for an evacuation.

All of Sichuan’s quake-wrecked schools experienced brittle collapse, according to Wang’s definition. They lacked the reinforced concrete that allows for a ductile collapse, often saving lives.

“Brittle collapse buildings obviously fail to meet construction standards,” said Liang Wei of the Urban Planning and Design Institute at Tsinghua University. “Either the design or the construction quality is below standard.”

Caijing obtained a review June 2 conducted by the Sichuan Construction Bureau showing that the widespread destruction at the schools was linked to a failure to meet earthquake prevention standards, poor structural design and substandard construction.

China paid a high price before setting the earthquake building standards in place today. The government revised the building code after a major earthquake shattered Tangshan, a northeastern city, claiming 240,000 lives three decades ago. The code was further upgraded in 1989 and dubbed “the 89 standard.”

The code spells out detailed requirements for construction materials and design with a clear goal: Buildings should remain intact after minor shaking, receive repairable damage after moderate shaking, and remain standing after a major earthquake. 

In the years after the code was formulated, China went through a construction boom, and relevant laws seemed to follow suit. In 1998, the Construction Law and Earthquake Prevention Law went into effect. Last year, the construction ministry passed a detailed earthquake prevention regulation.

According to these laws and regulations, school buildings were to meet a “B standard” for earthquake prevention – a step above the C standard required for residential buildings.
The legislation was backed by investment. After a nationwide survey on the quality of school construction in 1996, the central government set up a program in 2001 to rebuild some shaky buildings with financing from a special fund. From 2001 to ’05, the central government allocated more than 9 billion yuan to renovate dangerous school buildings, giving special emphasis to those in China’s western regions, including Sichuan. Free education in rural China was promoted through a program that kicked off in late 2005.

The central government allocated more than 265 billion yuan for the 2005-’10 period to improve rural education and school building quality. Local governments were required to provide matching funds. But the blood that spilled in school yards after the earthquake testified to poor implementation.

Collapsed in 10 Seconds

About 100 meters from the Fuxing school stands a shop that survived the quake with a few wall cracks. The shop opened in 1982, and more recently it was classified as a dangerous building due to age and poor construction.

The three-story school building was completed in 1988. Builders added the third floor at the request of school officials, even though the original plan called for only two stories.

“The whole building crumbled to ashes in about 10 seconds,” an eyewitness told a reporter for Southern Weekly.

“This wouldn’t have happened had the construction quality been a little better,” Chen Yu, a mother of one of the deceased students told Caijing.

More than half the students were killed in hallways during their vain scramble to evacuate.

Jiang Xuyin led the team that built Fuxing’s school. He told Caijing he knew about an earthquake resistance requirement that said buildings must be able to sustain temblors up to magnitude 7. Although Jiang said earthquake prevention wasn’t on his mind during the building project, he now admits the construction was problematic. Yet he said the structural design bore the greatest responsibility.

Experts who studied the collapsed school found serious problems in construction quality. Every building sample failed national standards.

Jiang’s hands shook while he spoke to Caijing. “Taking on that (Fuxing) project was my biggest mistake ever,” he said.

The school’s blueprint copied that used for a nearby school, with some modifications. A floor was added, wall thickness was reduced to 24 centimeters from 37 centimeters, beam sizes were cut back, and a slab roof was installed instead of tile.

Most of the changes were made to save money.

Caijing found and interviewed Sun Anquan, a retired party secretary for Wufu village, home to Fuxing school. He oversaw the construction and remembers the tight local budget at the time. The county government provided 50,000 yuan for the project and expected the village government and local education agency to provide the rest.

In fact, according to the contracts and related documents, the government was so strapped for cash that Jiang’s construction team paid 150,000 yuan up front.

A retired middle school headmaster, Yi Ancheng, said school buildings were usually completed on tight schedules, with low budgets. They filled a huge need, replacing classroom buildings made of clay that leaked in the rain.

“Being able to build a new school house was something to celebrate,” Yi said. “No one really cared whether these buildings could withstand earthquakes.”

In 1989, the year-old school passed all quality inspections conducted by school and local government officials, as well as the building’s designers.

Call Them Dangerous?

School buildings are totally controlled by an educational hierarchy. Local officials are responsible for fund-raising, lining up design and construction bids, and quality appraisals. No third party supervises the process.

Sichuan educators were aware of hazards and had plans to repair dangerous school buildings. As part of the central government’s massive, five-year investment in rural schools, Sichuan received 700 million yuan in 2007 to improve dangerous school buildings.

Curiously, it appeared few improvements were needed across the country. In 2000, for example, only 13 million square meters of the nation’s 9.6 trillion square meters of classroom space were reported to the central government as dangerous. But some 2 million square meters were shattered by the earthquake in Sichuan alone, affecting schools that were not on the national list of dangerous buildings.

The list itself is problematic. Despite the national campaign to identify and renovate dangerous buildings, there is no unified standard for labeling a structure “dangerous.” Rather, building inspections are based on a variety of local standards.

Meanwhile, some local education officials have played down the possibility of natural disasters while competing for the political gains that can accompany problem-free reports.

School officials also shoulder some responsibility. One education official in Mianzhu city showed Caijing that the local record of “dangerous” buildings did not include the Fuxing school. The official could not say why the school was left off the list, but said that according to the process, school officials should voluntarily file initial reports of dangerous conditions, which would lead to follow-ups and inspections by educational bureaus.

The building review process was also bogged down by bureaucratic delays. Yumu Middle School in Qingjiang County, for example, sent a dangerous building report to the local government in 2006. But the government failed to reply during the two years before the school collapsed in the quake, killing 275 students.

Indeed, targets of finger-pointing abound. But a lack of funding is certainly not to blame. The budget from the central government education bureau guaranteed that each square meter inside an identified dangerous building in China would receive an average 400 yuan for renovation. The available cash was even higher in Sichuan -- 500 yuan per square meter. Construction experts told Caijing the amount was more than enough to strengthen buildings.

In fact, the only school that withstood the earthquake in the epicenter region -- Liu Han Hope School -- had been built for less than 400 yuan per square meter.

Tracing the use of funds in each community, for every project, is impossible. But the case of Juyuan Middle School is telling. Caijing learned this quake-destroyed school last year received 200,000 yuan for construction quality improvements. The money was used for trees, paint, new classroom windows, and power line improvements.

In the wake of the tragedy, the education ministry and National Development and Reform Commission issued a nationwide mandate that sets strict standards for new school building construction. But the reins of quality control are still held by officials at various levels of education departments of various levels.
Builders are also giving school project procedures a second look.

“The earthquake taught the construction industry a profound lesson,” said Tsinghua’s Liang. “Besides refining the construction standard, we should really improve the quality of construction.”

Related Link:  Natural Disaster, Human Faults