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Shattered School Shows Power of Chinese Quake

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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