Students pay with their lives for a corrupt building industry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2008, 12:00am

The earthquake hit so suddenly that the hundreds of pupils at Fuxin No2 Primary School in Mianzhu's Fuxin township had no chance. Within seconds, the school's three-storey buildings crumbled, entombing 127 students.

Parents who rushed to the school were confronted with the sight of children's bodies buried under the collapsed slabs.

Later, they noticed that in the debris there were no steel reinforcing bars in the broken columns which had supported the walls. The walls themselves appeared to be made of bricks, and the mortar turned to powder at the touch of a finger.

'Now, looking back, I think I sent my daughter to a school that had a time bomb,' sobbed Xiong Yonghao , whose 11-year-old girl Xiong Xin was killed in the collapse.

For almost a month, Mr Xiong and parents of dozens of other dead pupils have held memorials in the debris amid pictures of their lost children, stuffed animals and school bags covered in dust. They simply want to know one thing: did the quake or the shoddy school buildings kill their children?

Fuxin No2 Primary School was one of a long list of schools in Sichuan whose buildings collapsed during the magnitude 8 quake on May 12, making escape almost impossible for students. More than 300 died in Dujiangyan's Muyu Middle School and about 1,000 dies at Beichuan Middle School when a five-storey building gave way. Sichuan education authorities said the earthquake destroyed more than 7,000 classrooms and killed 4,737 students, but parents insist that more than 10,000 students died.

After inspecting the ruins of numerous schools Guo Xun , a professor with the Institute of Mechanical Engineering under the China Earthquake Administration, blamed flawed design and sloppy engineering for the building failures.

He said schools were more vulnerable to tremors than apartments because classrooms by default had more windows and fewer vertical components. They required specific quake-resistance design but these elements were missing in the collapsed Sichuan school buildings.

Professor Guo said that at Dujiangyan's Juyuan Middle School he found no evidence of vertical reinforcing columns in the brick walls. He said the national building code specifically required school buildings to have higher quake-resistance standards than apartments, but these requirements were rarely met in less economically developed parts of the country.

'Quake-resistance design is a precise science, but unfortunately it is not always respected. Most likely people in these areas didn't understand the fuss about the design and building inspectors did not have the specific knowledge to notice the difference,' he said.

During inspections of quake sites, Professor Guo also noticed negligent engineering practices which, if avoided, could have made the buildings stronger in the face of the quake.

'You need to connect the two preformed slabs firmly by welding the ends of iron bars so that the slabs will be part of one big slab and be less vulnerable in the quake,' Professor Guo said. 'But I have seen not a single building where the slabs were welded together. That's totally the fault of the builders.'

Beijing University of Technology professor and director of the university's earthquake engineering lab, Li Zhenbao , also said the widespread use of cheap, hollow slab floors contributed to the catastrophic damage. Professor Li said it appeared the slabs were not adequately tied to the lateral frames and the structure was too flexible. 'The death toll would have been one-third lower or half if the buildings were built properly,'

he said.

The quake left nearly 70,000 dead and more than 17,000 missing. More than 5 million are homeless.

Professor Guo said he understood the outrage of the bereaved parents because more school buildings than residential blocks had collapsed.

'The reason why so many school buildings collapsed is not a black-and-white issue,' he said. 'There is no simple answer and each building has its own flaws, such as being built at the wrong location, designed with no respect for the quake-fortification code, or simply located on the wrong side of a fault line.'

Several seismologists and construction experts said schools were especially vulnerable in the face of such a strong quake, but parents and engineers were not convinced the tragedy was unavoidable.

Parents of Fuxin No2 Primary School students blamed the school and local education authorities for failing to do their jobs by letting dangerous buildings be used when they were fully aware of the potential threat.

Tang Liang, a 13-year-old sixth-grader who was pulled out from the debris, recalled that teachers forbade them to jump or run on the third floor of the building as 'it made the building shake'.

Construction engineers outside the quake zone said the school tragedies in Sichuan exposed widespread corruption in the building industry.

A construction engineer with almost 15 years' experience with a foreign building contractor in Shanghai said it was common for contractors to take 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the contract value and subcontract the work. Eventually the final contractor had no choice but to stint on materials or use substandard supplies to make a profit. 'Schools usually have lower budgets and once corruption occurs it's unavoidable to use engineering shortcuts and risk the quality of the building,' the engineer said.

Another engineer in Shanghai, who has overseen projects across the mainland, said corruption in the building industry started from the time contractors submitted bids, especially in the case of government-funded projects.

'The bribes needed to win the project, to get all the necessary chops during construction and to get quick approval when the project is finished, all add to the cost of the project. Where do you think the money will come from if the contractor still wants to make a profit?' the engineer said.

Brian E. Tucker, a seismologist and president of GeoHazards International, a group working to reduce predictable losses in natural disasters and promote school safety, said keeping schools safe required 'a network of checks and balances' to ensure the school building process was free of corruption. 'That's why in the US we have designed a system for constructing schools where basically everyone is checking everyone else and people are paid by different people so there is multiple checking. Not one person has the ultimate power to make the decision about the design or anything.'