China to probe builders after collapses in quake

China vowed on Wednesday to deal severely with anyone found responsible for shoddy state building work, as parents demanded to know why last week’s quake destroyed so many schools, killing thousands of children.

Nine days after the massive tremor hit the mountainous Sichuan province in south-western China, rescuers were still finding survivors. A woman was pulled alive from a tunnel at a hydropower plant in the town of Hongbai, state media reported.

The number of dead and missing rose to more than 74 000, with a further 247 000 hurt.

But aftershocks, heavy snow on mountain passes, rain and the threat of disease have complicated relief efforts.

The most lamented victims of the quake have been thousands of children who died when school buildings collapsed. The fragility of schools that crumpled into bloody piles has aroused widespread claims that corruption fatally compromised building strength.

Hundreds of distraught relatives on Wednesday placed wreaths along the road leading to Fuxing Primary School in Wufu, where at least 127 children were crushed to death.

They hoisted a banner reading ”The children did not die of a natural disaster but of an unsafe building”.

”An answer must be given to our children,” said Li Xiaoping, whose 11-year-old son was among the dead. ”There is a problem with the buildings … all the buildings here did not collapse except for this one building.”

Li Rongrong, head of the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission and the man in charge of overseeing China’s huge state sector, told a news conference in Beijing that generally construction companies under him were very good.

But he added: ”If these buildings [that collapsed] were built by major state-owned firms, we will take severe measures.”

In Yinhua town, where more than 200 pupils died, a woman who lost her 13-year-old daughter said the school building originally had two levels in 1993, but it illegally added two more levels later.

”When it collapsed it was just fragments, not blocks. That shows how badly built it was,” said Luo Zaihong.

A petition was also circulated in Juyuan town, where 500 or more pupils died in the ruins of the local middle school, demanding punishment of officials or builders responsible for shoddy schools, and compensation.

As the ruling Communist Party seeks to maintain a staunch front of unity and stability after the quake, the incipient protests by parents could be troublesome, for many of them blame official graft and laxity, more than nature, for the deaths.

From rescue to relief

Thousands of aftershocks, heavy snow in the Wenchuan mountains and a forecast of more rain compounded the difficulties for military, government and private workers trying to deliver aid and ensure millions get shelter as the focus turned inevitably from rescue to relief.

An estimated five million people were left homeless by the 7.9-magnitude quake. In the countryside, where countless homes are too damaged or too unsafe to live in, many farmers now live in encampments of makeshift shelters.

”The biggest hardship we have is not having a tent,” said Wang Falan, who lives with her extended family of 11 in two makeshift shelters. ”It is also the lack of rice and cooking oil. I don’t know what we’ll do if we have to keep living like this.”

The Foreign Ministry urged the international community to donate more tents. Three million tents were needed.

Premier Wen Jiabao ordered the supply of 250 000 temporary housing units — simple steel structures normally used by construction workers — to the quake area by June 30 and the number should reach one million in three months, state media said.

Conscious of the threat of disease, rescue workers continued to douse wrecked towns and villages with disinfectant and lime.

The town of Beichuan, which was totally destroyed by the quake, was closed off due to the threat of disease, a newspaper reported. More than 5 000 epidemic prevention workers had been sent to 125 villages in Sichuan, state media said.

Wen has warned of the threat of ”secondary disasters”, ordering experts to inspect dams and reservoirs on 24-hour patrols with more heavy rain forecast.

He also ordered all central government departments to cut this year’s budgeted spending by 5% to help fund 70-billion yuan in relief and reconstruction. — Reuters

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