DUJIANGYAN, China – Releasing a tidal wave of emotion and anger, hundreds of grieving parents and sympathizers gathered at a pile of rubble that was once the Juyuan Middle School on Tuesday to memorialize the nearly 1,000 teenagers who died when the building collapsed in the May 12 earthquake.
The heart-rending ceremony also offered the victims' parents an opportunity to demand justice.
A woman clutching the portrait of her daughter, Dong Yan, cursed the people in charge of building the school, which collapsed even though all the buildings around it remained standing. Like most of the people in the crowd, she believes local corruption was the reason for the poor construction.
Ryan Pyle / msnbc.com
| Click for slide show: Parents mourn the loss of
the children who died at Juyuan Middle School
during the May 12 earthquake in China.
"We want the truth to come out and the corrupt officials to be punished," she said between sobs. "These corrupt players are the ones who have caused us so much misery."
Banners hung across the destroyed building for the occasion were more blunt: "Get even for the deaths of the Juyuan students," read one. Another demanded harsh punishment for the "murderers" responsible for the collapsed school. "Whoever is responsible for the building should pay with their life," said another, comparing the building materials used in the structure to tofu.
As the crowd grew, the sound of weeping became a chorus. Women sobbed, and men drew deeply on cigarettes as tears trickled down their cheeks. Mourners lit candles and incense in the wreckage. Some women were so distraught they were carried away by family and friends. A girl recovering from head injuries stood holding a picture of her dead brother, a faraway look on her face. A hastily set up sound system broadcast a dirge. The crack of fireworks cut through the din.
Notably missing from the memorial service were any representatives of the school or the local government, who in most crises would be expected to attempt to console the mourners.
Instead, two trucks arrived as the service got under way and began spraying down the ruins. One of them started to work at the far end of the building, and began moving toward the mourners. A driver, dressed in white, got out and tried unsuccessfully to shoo away the mourners. At one point, the two trucks took up positions on both sides of the crowd, with their powerful sprayers pointed at the center, as if they might start work in spite of the funeral. Eventually they backed out and drove away.
After 300 to 400 people had gathered, including several dozen Chinese journalists, the mood turned more businesslike. One parent took the microphone to organize mourners by class of students. He also announced that the group was gathering the names of the affected families so that they could speak with one voice in demanding justice and accountability from the government.
The collapse of Juyuan school was not an isolated incident in Dujiangyan, a city about one hour's drive from Chengdu that suffered profound damage in the earthquake. Though it was farther from the epicenter than many other towns, the city's schools fared particularly badly.
At the Juyuan memorial, a man named Yan beseeched journalists to cover a similar event next week to commemorate students at the Xinjian Primary School, where he said his 10-year-old daughter died in a similar collapse along with more than 300 other children. He said local officials lied when they reported 20 deaths in the school.
|Ryan Pyle / MSNBC.com|
|A father mourns for his daughter at what is left of the Juyuan Middle School.|
Yan, too, wants someone held accountable for the collapse of the school that led to his daughter's death. He says that families of victims have been offered a total of 32,000 yuan (about $4,500) in "comfort money" from the central government, the provincial government and the local government.
"None of us has touched this money," he says. "What we want is justice."