Substandard building practices blamed for deaths in China

May 20th, 2008 - 9:19 am ICT by admin  

By Till Faehnders
Dujiangyan (China), May 20 (DPA) Hundreds of children who died could have survived the recent, devastating earthquake in China, experts said. The construction experts blamed widespread, substandard building construction for the fact that so many children were buried under collapsing school buildings.

Xianjian elementary school in Dujiangyan country is an example. The school has been completely flattened, reducing it to nothing more than a pile of rubble.

The schoolyard is enveloped in total silence. A children’s chair lies discarded next to a puddle of water. More than 300 pupils died here during the quake May 12.

“Those were 300 children who didn’t have to die,” said Kit Miyamoto, owner of Miyamoto International, a construction company that specialised in earthquake-secure building.

The California-based firm dispatched a team of engineers to the afflicted disaster province of Sichuan in south-western China to investigate the effects of the quake that cost the lives of more than 50,000 people in order to gain knowledge for the prevention of future occurrences.

The schoolhouse ruins, which until a few days ago concealed the corpses of hundreds of children, is a memorial to sheer horror.

These types of shoddy buildings are aptly called “tofu houses” in Chinese, because they collapse like tofu - soy bean curd - during even the slightest tremor.

The comparison is imminently apparent: while nearby buildings have survived the earthquake relatively unscathed, the former 11 classrooms that comprised the school have turned into dust.

“The building just crumbled away entirely,” said Miyamoto with a stern expression.

The US expert visibly had difficulties suppressing his anger about the obvious construction blunders that occurred here.

He pointed at steel mesh inside a concrete pillar that rose from the rubble and had broken in two.

“That steel is an all-important component. Those rods had to be twice as thick if they were supposed to keep the concrete pillar together,” he said.

Additionally, the distance between the vertical rods would have had to be closer together. That way, the concrete would have retained greater flexibility.

“But when it is like here, concrete simply bursts at the slightest strain,” he asserted.

There is no lack in regulations in China’s construction laws. Requirements for concrete buildings have been regulated since the 1970’s, Miyamoto said. But like in this particular case, they are often ignored.

“Construction techniques, building design and quality supervision, everything has been flawed,” he added.

Many Chinese blame corrupt cadres within the authorities and greedy construction firms for the fact that many public buildings - like schools - have been erected with a disregard to quality.

The relatives and parents of the dead children point an accusing finger as well. Like Niu, an elderly gentleman who refused to disclose his full name.

He lives only a few blocks from the destroyed school in the open, under a plastic tarpaulin like many survivors.

His eyes filled with tears when he retold how his granddaughter was buried under the rubble and how her small body was recovered dead.

“The school building originally only had two storeys, but then they simply added another two on top,” he said.

His eight-year-old granddaughter was on the first floor when the earthquake hit.

“Everybody was so fond of her,” he told a Chinese official, Guo Weidong.

He and his colleague, Jiang Guosheng were dispatched by the provincial authorities to visit affected villages and towns and document the extent of the destruction and state of damaged buildings.

They secure evidence and establish the security status of buildings left standing. They are both very busy.

Their most important tool is a camera with which they shoot pictures of collapsed buildings.

According to Guo Weidong, the biggest problem identified so far is that older buildings were not built to standard.

A flawed building like Xianjiang Eelementary School would not be possible today, he said.

However, residents recalled that the school was only erected in the 1990s, suggesting that substandard building must have prevailed at least until that decade.

“If a building is collapsing like this school, it is clear that something was wrong,” admits Guo. “But that is likely not only due to one single cause, but instead to several.”
DPA

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