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Survivors from Juyuan Middle School

Andrea Hsu

Survivors from Juyuan Middle School

Listen to Melissa Block on 'Morning Edition'

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This morning, Melissa and I returned to Juyuan Middle School. We first visited the school Monday night, just hours after the earthquake.

A blackboard still hangs on the wall of what used to be a third floor classroom. Above it, a Chinese flag, and three characters that read "Nothing to fear," a message of encouragement for the students, many of whom came from the countryside. Photo by Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Photo by Andrea Hsu, NPR

That night, we saw half a dozen cranes and scores of military police working to rescue buried schoolchildren. We also saw families, too many to bear, grieving their loved ones. In the hours and days since, many, many more bodies were pulled from the rubble, though nobody seems to know just how many. From what we can gather, the death toll at the school is in the hundreds.

Today, it was a very different scene. The rescue operation has ended, though some told us that there are still children missing. Workers were spraying disinfectant on the rubble pile.

Workers spray disinfectant on the rubble, they say to prevent the spread of disease. Photo by Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Photo by Andrea Hsu, NPR

At the school, we met 17-year-old Huang Yibei, who repeated something we'd heard the other night: that when the earthquake struck, teachers at the school told students to stay put, and that was the reason so many of them died. Huang did not attend Juyuan Middle School, but had heard this from someone who did: his cousin, 15-year-old Huang Zhiwei.

15-year-old Huang Zhihui was in history class at Juyuan Middle School when the earthquake struck. He ran out of the school when the earthquake hit. Behind him, he heard screams and the sound of the building collapsing. Photo by Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Photo by Andrea Hsu, NPR

We visited Huang Zhiwei in his home village just a few miles from the school. He greeted us in English and told us what happened Monday afternoon. He'd been in history class when the earthquake struck. His teacher stepped out to see what was happening, saw things falling from the roof, and told the students to get out. They ran down the staircase, which today, is the only part of the school still standing. Huang says most of his classmates are alive today because they ran. He remembers hearing the sound of the school collapsing behind him.

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But the same is not true for the class that Huang's friend Wei Bo was in. Wei, also 15, was in politics class that afternoon. His telling of what happened is heartbreaking. His teacher, he says, did not realize just how serious the situation was. The teacher told the students to calm down, to stay seated. The building came tumbling down on the class. Wei Bo was lucky. He was not crushed by the concrete and steel, but miraculously ended up in an air pocket, and twenty minutes later, managed to crawl out of the debris, helping another buried student along the way. Tragically, many of his other classmates perished, and so did his teacher.

Melissa Block talks with earthquake survivor Wei Bo, 15 years old. Wei Bo was in politics class when the earthquake struck. His teacher did not realize how severe the earthquake was, he says, and told everyone to calm down and remain seated. Photo by Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

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Photo by Andrea Hsu, NPR

As the two teenage boys recounted their stories before us and a crowd of villagers today, I sat in awe of their composure and their courage. Melissa asked them about how they're doing. Huang Zhiwei told us, I don't dare go into buildings - I'm frightened by them. And Wei Bo said, the aftershocks - and there have been many - are scary.

Just as I was wondering whether these boys will ever be able to shake the terror they experienced this past Monday, I spotted them, on our way out, just being boys: running up a dirt road, laughing, getting on with their lives. And that gave me hope that although it seems like an impossibility now, life in this part of China may one day be normal once again.

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