Shattered School Shows Power of Chinese Quake

Among the victims of a powerful earthquake near Chengdu, China, are hundreds of young students who are feared dead after being trapped in the rubble of their middle school.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

On our program today, we have several eyewitness reports from central China. Nearly 9,000 people are believed dead in Sichuan province after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake. We certainly didn't plan it this way, but both my co-hosts Robert Siegel and Melissa Block are in the region to prepare for a series from China on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED next week.

Robert and Melissa are now shifting their focus to follow the story of the earthquake. Melissa traveled to a middle school near the quake's epicenter, where hundreds of children are feared dead.

MELISSA BLOCK: At midnight, at the Juyuan Middle School, hundreds of parents waited as they had for hours and hours, pain and uncertainty and palpable fear etched on their faces. Then a moment of hope: an ambulance pulled up and a survivor is lifted in. The crowd presses forward, parents desperate to see the face of their child miraculously alive.

An ambulance has just pulled away here, and the crowd is being held back by soldiers or police. The ambulance is pulling away.

BLOCK: One mother cries out hopefully, my child, my child.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Standing right outside the remnants of what was the Juyuan Middle School, there are about seven cranes here now, heavy equipment. It's midnight, and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of anxious parents watching this effort. Parts of the building are still standing. Parts are completely gone, and the cranes are lifting heavy chunks of masonry, trying to find the children who might be still inside.

Shu Bing(ph) and Shuyat Chun(ph) were waiting for any word of their 15-year-old daughter. The military is running the rescue effort at the school, but these parents tells us the heavy machinery, these cranes came late - way too late.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: We were on our knees begging, they say, begging the People's Armed Police. Nobody was in charge. Two hours went by, no equipment. Three hours, no equipment. Then four hours. We hear from some of the parents here that they start digging in the rubble by themselves when the machinery didn't arrive.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #4: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: This mother, Yang Rong(ph), says she would able to hear her 14-year-old son's voice in the rubble and still could many hours after the earthquake hit. He's still inside. He's still talking, she says. She tells us one survivor who had escaped said when the earthquake hit, the teachers told the students don't move. Don't move. Yang Rong says if the students had run, they would have survived.

Over and over tonight, the scene is not of survival, but of unrelenting death. Military officers in fatigues run out from the wreckage with a body on a make-shift wooden stretcher. The child's face is gray, covered in dust. One arm is stretched straight above his head, as if she had been reaching for escape. His body is laid on a plastic tarp, alongside many, many others. When the body is set down, parents crowd around to see if he's their son. And soon enough, four women collapse in grief at his side. They're rocking in pain and wailing as they recognized the boy as their own.

One woman finally lowers the boy's arm, one final gesture of loving kindness. As the hours past, the night takes on a grim, devastating rhythm of its own. After family members identify a body, they covered the child in plastic and take him or her under shelters, where they've set up shrines for their dead. They unwind the plastic and wrap the young forms in soft quilts and set them onto whatever bit of cardboard or plywood the family can find. They set a few stones underneath, if they can, to lift the body off the ground, and they gather around in mourning. Some light red candles and incense. Some burn paper money to send them their child into the after life. Others light firecrackers to ward-off evil spirits.

Tonight, there were dozens upon dozens of families going through this same grim ritual, their heads bowed in unspeakable pain as they set vigil over small lifeless forms. Many of these young victims would have been their parent's only children. And in row after row, their parents sat huddled through the rainy night keeping watch, one last time, over their babies.

I'm Melissa Block in Chengdu, China.

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Thousands Feared Dead as Earthquake Hits China

A Quake's Arrival

Melissa Block was in the process of recording an interview when Monday's earthquake hit. She then fled the building and reported on the scene in the city's streets.

The sound of the earthquake in progress, recorded by Melissa Block

Later, she headed to the scene of a collapsed middle school where children had been pulled from the rubble.

Map of the earthquake's reach i i

Map of the earthquake's reach. Alice Kreit/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alice Kreit/NPR
Map of the earthquake's reach

The earthquake was felt as far away as Laos and Vietnam.

Alice Kreit/NPR

A Look at Chengdu

Residents fled buildings for the sidewalks of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. i i

Residents fled buildings for the sidewalks of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
Residents fled buildings for the sidewalks of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.

Residents fled buildings for the sidewalks of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.

Andrea Hsu/NPR

Relief efforts were underway Tuesday, a day after a powerful earthquake struck central China, killing as many as 12,000 people, officials said.

The magnitude 7.9 quake was felt as far away as Vietnam and Thailand. It appears to be the most devastating earthquake to hit China in more than three decades.

At a news conference Tuesday, China's disaster response director, Wang Zhengyao, said that 11,921 people have died so far from the quake centered in Sichuan province. The death toll from the quake is expected to rise even higher, with state media saying thousands are still trapped in collapsed buildings.

Approximately 80 percent of the buildings in Sichuan's Beichuan County were flattened in the quake, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday. A chemical plant in Shifang city also was destroyed, burying hundreds of people and spilling tons of toxic liquid ammonia.

Outside the city of Dujiangyan, at least 50 students were killed and 900 trapped after the three-story Juyuan Middle School collapsed. Buried teenagers could be seen struggling to break loose from under the rubble of the three-story building, while others cried out for help.

There were reports that army-led rescue workers had difficulty accessing the disaster area and were hampered by a lack of equipment. But large cranes outfitted with lights operated into the night to lift massive slabs of masonry, said NPR's Melissa Block, who was at the scene. Ambulances ferried away the survivors.

Dozens of bodies of children were laid out on the ground, waiting for parents to identify them, Block said. Once claimed, the bodies were wrapped in shrouds and brought under plastic tarps. Hundreds of parents waited for hours in the rain for word of their children.

Parents built makeshift shrines and placed the bodies of the dead on pieces of cardboard or plywood as they grieved over the small lifeless forms. Some lighted red candles or burned paper money to send children into the afterlife. Others set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. The grim ritual played out by dozens and dozens of families as they kept watch over their babies one last time.

Students also were buried under five other toppled schools in Deyang city.

The earthquake struck in the middle of the day, around 2:28 p.m. local time. People flooded into the streets as the ground shook, and many were trapped in collapsed buildings.

One man said he felt the road start to buckle when the earthquake began.

"The road started swaying as I was driving. Rocks fell from the mountains, with dust darkening the sky over the valley," a driver for Sichuan's seismological bureau told Xinhua.

Two girls were quoted as saying they escaped because they had "run faster than others."

In Dujiangyan, 45 miles north of Chengdu, a hospital collapsed with an estimated 100 people, NPR's Robert Siegel reported. Crane crews worked to rescue those trapped. Tents at a Red Cross center were set up to tend to the wounded as they waited for ambulances to take them to other hospitals.

The earthquake crashed telephone networks in Chengdu and plunged parts of the city of 11 million into darkness. Residents slept outside in cars or fled to the suburbs — far from the city's high rises — as more than 300 aftershocks rattled the area throughout the day, according to state-run media.

The devastation comes as China is preparing to host the Olympic Games, which begin in Beijing on Aug. 8.

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