une 16, 2008 nytimes
How Angel of Sichuan Saved School in Quake
By EDWARD WONGhttp://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/16/world ... ina&st=nyt
Classes at Sangzao Middle School, where all 2,323 students survived the earthquake, are held in tents set up on the basketball courts until the school gets rebuilt.
Students collected their belongings from the school, which was still standing, although it suffered some structural damage.
SANGZAO, China — The students lined up row by row on the outdoor basketball courts of Sangzao Middle School in the minutes after the earthquake. When the head count was complete, their fate was clear: all 2,323 were alive.
Parents covered in blood and dust hugged them and cried. So did the school principal, Ye Zhiping.
“That was the single most joyful thing,” he said.
Given that some 10,000 other children were crushed in their classrooms during the devastating quake on May 12, the survival of so many students in Sangzao counts as a minor miracle.
Students and parents credit that to the man they call Angel Ye.
Nervous about the shoddiness of the main school building, Mr. Ye scraped together $58,000 to renovate it in the 1990s. He had workers widen concrete pillars and insert iron rods into them. He demanded stronger balcony railings. He demolished a bathroom whose pipes had been weakened by water.
His school in Peace County probably withstood the 8.0-magnitude earthquake because he pushed the county government to upgrade it. Just 20 miles north, the collapse of Beichuan Middle School buried 1,000 students and teachers.
Mr. Ye’s tale sheds light on the lax building codes in this mountainous corner of Sichuan Province and what might have been done to address well-known shortcomings. In his case, a personal commitment and a relatively petty amount of cash sufficed to avert tragedy.
“We learned a lesson from this earthquake: the standards for schools should have been improved,” Mr. Ye, 55, said in an interview. “The standards now are still not enough.”
Mr. Ye not only shored up the building’s structure, but also had students and teachers prepare for a disaster. They rehearsed an emergency evacuation plan twice a year. Because of that, students and teachers say, everyone managed to flee in less than two minutes on May 12.
“We’re very thankful,” said Qiu Yanfang, 62, the grandmother of a student, as she sat outside the school knitting a brown sweater. “The principal helped ease the nation’s loss, both the psychological loss and the physical loss.”
The Chinese government estimates that more than 7,000 schoolrooms collapsed in the earthquake. The destruction has prompted grieving parents to take to the streets to demand investigations, and that in turn has become the biggest political challenge to government officials in the aftermath of the earthquake. The police began clamping down this month on the protests.
It has been difficult to establish responsibility for the school collapses partly because it is unclear in many cases which level of government is responsible for the original school construction and for ongoing inspections.
The building codes Mr. Ye criticized had been set by the central government in Beijing, he said. While county education officials did not take the initiative in improving Sangzao Middle School, they acceded to Mr. Ye’s requests and gave him money, he said.
Huang Zhichun, an official in the county’s education department, said in a telephone interview: “Based on the fact that so many schools have collapsed, the standard is not good enough. The central government sets the standard.”
Government officials in Beijing and Sichuan have said they are investigating the collapses. In an acknowledgment of the weakness of building codes in the countryside, the National Development and Reform Commission said on May 27 that it had drafted an amendment to improve construction standards for primary and middle schools in rural areas. Experts are reviewing the draft, the commission said.
They could do worse than consult with Mr. Ye. A squat man who speaks in sharp bursts, he now lives with his wife in a refugee camp of green tents on the school’s basketball courts. He started working at the school 30 years ago as an English teacher and has taught in every classroom. Some students say he is more playful than the teachers.
Sangzao is a farming town of 30,000 where merchants sell vegetables from blankets on the road. It has two middle schools, one administered by the township, where a dormitory collapsed during the earthquake, and the other administered by the county. Mr. Ye works in the second. Families from across Sichuan send their children there because of its reputation.
A large billboard on the school grounds lists the names of 90 students who earned top scores on a national exam last year. The school is one of the largest in Peace County. It has a half-dozen dormitory buildings and two classroom buildings, all five stories or lower. One of the classroom buildings was constructed after 2000, the other between 1983 and 1985.
The older one worried Mr. Ye when he became principal 12 years ago.
It is a four-story, white building with large, tinted-glass windows and blue, metal railings running along balconies onto which classrooms open.
“Quality inspectors were supposed to be here to oversee construction of this building,” Mr. Ye said. “When the foundation was laid, they should have been here. When the concrete was put into the pillars, they should have been here. But they weren’t. In the end, no government official dared to come inspect this building because it was built without any standards.”
Mr. Ye walked down the hallways with a visitor and pointed to the corners where the ceiling met wall. He said workers had stuffed trash into those crevices to seal them. In addition, the surfaces of the walls were coarse rather than smooth, a sign of shoddy construction, he said.
The balcony railings were originally made of cement, not metal. They were shaky and a foot too short, Mr. Ye said. They also lacked vertical pillars for support.
“I was among the first teachers who moved into this building, and I was pretty young,” Mr. Ye said. “Our awareness of safety wasn’t the same as now.”
He said his attitude changed after he became principal.
“If I knew there was a hidden danger, and I didn’t do anything about it, then I would be the one responsible,” he said.
From 1996 to 1999, Mr. Ye oversaw a complete overhaul. He said he pestered county officials for money. Eventually the education department gave $58,000. It was a troublesome process because the county was poor and thus tight with money, Mr. Ye said, but officials saw the need to ensure the safety of children.
So the renovations began. Most crucial were changes made to concrete pillars and floor panels. Each classroom had four rectangular pillars that were thickened so they jutted from the walls. Up and down the pillars, workers drilled holes and inserted iron reinforcing rods because the original ones were not enough, Mr. Ye said. The concrete slab floors were secured to be able to withstand intense shaking.
Structural engineers and earthquake experts outside China who have examined photos of collapsed schools point to two critical flaws: a lack of adequate iron reinforcing rods, and poorly built, hollow concrete slab floors.
Mr. Ye said construction codes improved after 2000, and buildings are now supposed to be rated a 6 or 7 on a scale of earthquake resistance.
“But we see from this earthquake that the standard should be lifted to 11 or 12,” he said.
Each classroom in the main school building holds about 60 students. Each room is now a frozen tableau of 2:28 p.m. on May 12. Backpacks and textbooks are scattered all around. A bag of oranges sits on a desk.
Students said they dove under desks when the tremor hit. Then teachers led them onto the basketball courts outside.
“Many parents ran to the school afterward,” said Yang Shihui, 40, an English teacher. “One mother started hugging her daughter and saying, oh my daughter. The daughter was fine. It was actually the mother who was covered in dirt and bleeding.”
Mr. Ye was in a city 30 miles away when the ground began shaking.
“On my way back, I saw that many buildings had been seriously destroyed,” Mr. Ye said. “I was pretty concerned. But when I saw that all of my students were safe, I was very happy.”
These days, students dart in and out of the school to grab textbooks, ducking beneath a thin blue ribbon with a handwritten sign that says “Danger.” To them, the building seems sturdy enough.
But Mr. Ye said it will be torn down, never again used for classes.
Ye Zhiping, the school’s principal, knew the building was shoddy, so he pressed the county government for $58,000 to upgrade it. If he hadn’t, he said, “I would be the one responsible.”
Huang Yuanxi contributed research from Beijing.