A gantlet of grief at school

Times Staff Writer

On Monday afternoon, a few hours after the earthquake hit, some of the hundreds of children carried out of the collapsed Ju- yuan Middle School were still alive.

This morning, almost all those being pulled from the rubble are dead, borne on doors by Chinese soldiers who run along a cleared path to a series of makeshift shelters where dozens of bodies are laid out for relatives to identify.

It is a gantlet of grief, kept clear of surging crowds of desperate parents by security officers with locked arms.

"My niece, I don't know if she survived," says Yang Xianhui, 43, a farmer in a straw hat, fighting for position in the mud, straining to see the slow procession of bodies, hoping to recognize the shoe or bluejeans of a still-breathing loved one.

Behind the desperate throngs is the tomb being excavated, where hundreds of children were buried within seconds. Two giant cranes struggle to lift huge pieces of concrete as teams of orange-suited emergency workers, white-coated medics and police wrestle with the rubble.

One four-story shard of the building remains standing. Nearby, two ambulance medics lie exhausted on a gurney. As the number of injured diminishes, the rescue workers are finally able to take a brief break.

In the muddy parking lot nearby, amid a sea of raincoats, makeshift shelters have been constructed of sticks, lumber and the omnipresent cheap polyester sheets used for suitcases in developing countries. Under the tarp, pallets and doors support dozens of bodies, some wrapped in plastic sheeting with only their sports shoes showing, others more visible, their hair matted with the dust and debris of the fallen building.

Families wail over their children. Here and there, a candle fights against the wind, sticks of incense mark a life, and fireworks help send a loved one off to the spirit world.

At the edge of one shelter, a body lies on a pallet in the mud and rain, 10 family members hugging and touching the boy's face, his shoulders, his hair. Their tears mix with the dirt.

Bloated blue hands bear witness to the hell the boy experienced in his last moments of life. As the crowd looks on, the mother lovingly struggles to open a rigor mortis-clenched fist.

Nearby, a new victim is brought in, his lips, nose and cheeks smashed to the right side. His parents yell and quickly cover him with a blanket.

Wang Hong, 41, dips her plastic slippers in the muck for better traction. She's been waiting since Monday afternoon. Her 15-year-old nephew was found dead then. Now, she seeks the fate of her niece.

Word spread like wildfire shortly after the earthquake that the school was the worst-hit structure in the disaster zone.

Those in the crowd question the quality of construction. Only the classrooms seem to have collapsed, not the dorms or teacher's offices. In some classes of 75 students, only two or three survived.

"This is the most devastating thing imaginable, to lose a child," Wang says.

"And almost everyone is losing an only child. This community will live with this pain for years, decades."



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