Juyuan, China, May 15, 2008—Like most national disasters, feelings of the Chinese are razor taut. Friends and family of the victims have begun pointing fingers because there is a feeling of hopelessness and grief all around them. It happened in Hurricane Katrina and it’s happening in China, as recovery of the dead drags on.
Parents say they were only allowed to begin identifying their children on Wednesday. The disaster occurred on Monday. The bodies had remained inside the gated grounds of Xinjian Primary School for two days until officials began transporting them to the morgue on Wednesday.
The earthquake struck at 2:28 p.m. on Monday, and many parents rushed to the school. Xinjian had about 600 pupils, ages from roughly 7 to 12. When parents arrived most of the building had collapsed. They frantically pulled away bricks and chunks of concrete with their bare hands.
“We pleaded with the administrators to help us,” said one mother, Chen Li, 39, who came to the morgue on Wednesday to identify her son, a sixth grader. “We yelled, ‘Where are the soldiers? Send them to help us!’ ”
Ms. Chen said her son, Zhang Yuanxin, was discovered the same day as the earthquake but then left uncovered in the rain with other bodies on the playground. She said two trucks arrived Wednesday and carried away bodies shortly before Mr. Wen arrived for his inspection.
“I think there were 50 bodies in two trucks that were carried away,” Ms. Chen said. “I asked those people, ‘Are you taking the bodies away?’ ”
But she said local officials lied to her and said they were only taking away tents.
Parents say they became so angry over the situation at the school by Tuesday that they formed a committee and complained to local officials. Officials in Dujiangyan could not be reached by reporters for comment, but parents say the officials relented on Wednesday by moving the children’s bodies to the morgue and providing shuttle buses for people waiting outside the school.
At the morgue on Wednesday, parents walked through rooms lined with bodies on the floor, lifting sheets in the unwanted search to identify a lost child. Cai Changrong, 37, held an urn containing the ashes of his cremated 9-year-old daughter. His wife, Hu Xiu, could not stop wailing.
“We didn’t find any bruises or injuries on her body,” said Ms. Hu, the mother. “But she lost all her nails. She was trying to scratch her way out. I think my daughter suffocated to death.”
Several parents have called for an investigation into the construction quality of school buildings in Dujiangyan. They say six schoolhouses collapsed in the city, even as other government buildings remain standing. One man said officials built two additional stories on the Xinjian school even though it had failed a safety inspection two years ago — allegations that could not be verified.
Mr. Li, the father dressing his dead daughter, also said he believed that the school was poorly built. He arrived at the school minutes after the quake and spent the next four hours searching for his daughter. His forearms were bruised and his fingernails were split and bloodied from digging.
He proudly handed over his cellphone and showed a picture of his daughter, Ke, taken last week. But Thursday morning, he and his wife were preparing for her cremation. They struggled to slip her into the pink pajamas and then dressed her in a gray sweatshirt and pants. Her mother placed a white silk mourning cloth under her clotted black hair.
Mr. Li said he lost his job in 1997 and had been living on a meager welfare payment. He said the school was filled with children from poor families. “My daughter was a very good student,” he said. “She was a quiet girl, and she liked to paint. We’re putting her in these clothes because she loved them.”
He said he was angry and sad. He said his daughter’s body was still warm when he found her at the morgue on Wednesday. He wondered how long she lived beneath the rubble. And then he turned away, leaning down slightly, and whispered in her ear.
“My little daughter,” he said quietly. “You used to dress yourself. Now I have to do it for you.”