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School Tragedy: Search for Victims Goes On

Soldiers were yesterday searching a muddy river for bodies following the devastating flood which killed at least 92, most of them school children, in Shalan township in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.


Last night, as well as the confirmed death toll, at least 11 were still missing.


About 40 soldiers in formation went about their grim task in the waist-deep river a few hundred meters south of the school in Shalan of Ning'an as they looked for bodies that might have been swept in on Friday.


"I didn't see any bodies this morning," said a villager who, along with about 400 others, arrived from another county to help clear the mud that covered the township school grounds and nearby areas.


"But on Sunday, they did recover two bodies from the muddy waters, and they were claimed by relatives," he said.


Dozens of volunteers from neighboring counties also came to help in the clean-up operation; and a few tried to find the missing children on their own.


Zhao Xiaolan, along with a relative, was searching for his 13-year-old nephew who has been missing since Friday, but he was not optimistic.


"Chances (of finding the boy) are very slim," Zhao said.


The school playground was totally covered in thick mud yesterday. There were poignant reminders of the tragic events three days earlier: chairs, schoolbags, books and paper, lay scattered in the mud. In the drab surroundings, a pink Mickey Mouse bag stood out.


The water level inside the classrooms, now looking like wrecks, had touched 2 meters.


In a classroom where about 50 first-graders were reportedly killed, the desks were piled up against the wall with broken chairs strewn over the floor.


Many of the windows were broken, but the bars outside could have prevented children and their parents who came to help from escaping.


Outside the school lay the rotting bodies of animals, attracting flies and emitting a foul stench.


Meanwhile, there was a semblance of a return to normality with 142 primary students going to school yesterday morning.


Classrooms were moved to Shalan Middle School, some 2 kilometers away from Shalan Township.


Traumatized students, many terrified of returning to school, were counseled by psychologists from Mudanjiang City.


Local education authorities provided 360 sets of desks, chairs, textbooks and stationery for the resumption of classes.


The central government was said to have earmarked 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) to rebuild Shalan Township Elementary School.


Lu Bing, mayor of Mudanjiang city, said the new school would be built on higher ground and construction would be completed before winter.


Huang Mingjun and Li Zuoyu, respectively the Party secretary of Shalan and the chief of its police station, were publicly censured for their negligence and an investigation will be launched.


Before the floodwaters reached Shalan, Zheng Changhui, secretary of Hesheng Village on the upper reaches of Shalan River, called the Shalan government and its police station to give a flood warning.


However, no one in the government received the phone call, while the police station said there was nothing they could do because "everyone was out."


"If there had been someone answering the phone, or attaching enough importance to the warning, this tragedy might not have happened," said a mother who lost her eight-year-old daughter.


The governor of Heilongjiang Province Zhang Zuoji expressed his condolences to the victims' families and said he had "an unshirkable responsibility, and would face any disciplinary action."


State Councilor Chen Zhili, who arrived at the flood-hit area on Sunday, conveyed the condolences of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.


Wen has instructed that relief work be speeded up and urged authorities at all levels to pay close attention to the safety of students, especially during the rainy season.


An emergency notice issued by the Ministry of Education requires schools nationwide to have thorough safety checks. If any danger is detected, classes should be moved or even cancelled.


(China Daily June 14, 2005)

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