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Shaking up Safety

Updated on July 15, 2011

Sichuan Earthquake, 12 May 2008

While some people around the world were still fast asleep in their beds, at 2.28pm on May 12th 2008 an earthquake, magnitude 8.0, struck Sichuan province of China . The epicenter of the earthquake was at Wenchuan, about 90 miles from Chengdu, a large city famous for the Giant Panda Breeding Park. The earthquake released more energy than 500 atomic
bombs, and was 30 times more powerful than the Kobe earthquake in Japan, 1995.  It is believed that close on 100 000 people died from this disaster, many of them children.

As so many schools collapsed, many people questioned the safety standards the government used when building the schools.  For a country that brags how they can build a hospital in a few weeks, one has to worry about how safe the building would be should another disaster strike.  In China, taking short cuts when erecting schools and apartment buildings is the norm.  Everything is done on the cheap.  Scaffolding is made of thin bamboo.  From what you see of the construction sites dotted all over the cities, universal health and safety regulations are not followed.  Hard hats, closed strong work boots, workmen on scaffolding tethered to something by a bungi cord are definitely not the norm.  Safety is very slapdash and one wonders how many accidents happen on construction sites.  One has to ask, how many children died, because their schools were built on the cheap?

As the one year anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake approaches, I'd like to dedicate this hub to the survivors, the families who lost loved ones, and the soldiers and volunteers who ignored their own personal safety and risked their lives to try and save others.

The horror and the aftershocks

I don't know how much you heard about this disaster, but it was far worse than anything you heard.
I don't know how much you heard about this disaster, but it was far worse than anything you heard.
6898 classrooms with children having lessons inside collapsed.  4737 Children in these classrooms, died in the earthquake and more than 16000 were injured.
6898 classrooms with children having lessons inside collapsed. 4737 Children in these classrooms, died in the earthquake and more than 16000 were injured.
5 million homes and buildings were completely destroyed.
5 million homes and buildings were completely destroyed.
In a brittle collapse, a building can crumble to dust in a few seconds. In a ductile collapse, a damaged building can stand for a short while, allowing time for an evacuation. All of Sichuan’s quake-wrecked schools experienced brittle collapse.  They
In a brittle collapse, a building can crumble to dust in a few seconds. In a ductile collapse, a damaged building can stand for a short while, allowing time for an evacuation. All of Sichuan’s quake-wrecked schools experienced brittle collapse. They
Some of the pictures in the newspapers in China were quite graphic.  The front page showed a dead child still clutching their pencil, a whole kindergarten class lying dead, stacked one on top of another when a concrete pillar was lifted.
Some of the pictures in the newspapers in China were quite graphic. The front page showed a dead child still clutching their pencil, a whole kindergarten class lying dead, stacked one on top of another when a concrete pillar was lifted.
China's One Child Policy meant that many families lost their only child.
China's One Child Policy meant that many families lost their only child.
You send your child to school expecting them to be safe.
You send your child to school expecting them to be safe.
Many people were survived the earthquake, died in one of the many aftershocks that followed for days afterwards, causing unstable buildings to collapse further, and landslides to fall on roads where people were trying to escape the disaster zone.
Many people were survived the earthquake, died in one of the many aftershocks that followed for days afterwards, causing unstable buildings to collapse further, and landslides to fall on roads where people were trying to escape the disaster zone.
Many volunteers died when trying to rescue those still trapped.
Many volunteers died when trying to rescue those still trapped.
In one group of 20 volunteers who flew to Sichuan to help, when they heard about the earthquake, only two survived to tell of their horrific experiences.  The others were killed in landslides and collapsing buildings during the aftershocks.
In one group of 20 volunteers who flew to Sichuan to help, when they heard about the earthquake, only two survived to tell of their horrific experiences. The others were killed in landslides and collapsing buildings during the aftershocks.
Parents mourned and questioned why the schools were not built according to accepted standards.  Sichuan Construction Bureau said that the widespread destruction at the schools was linked to a failure to meet earthquake prevention standards, poor stru
Parents mourned and questioned why the schools were not built according to accepted standards. Sichuan Construction Bureau said that the widespread destruction at the schools was linked to a failure to meet earthquake prevention standards, poor stru
Parents searched frantically for their children amongst the ruins and piles of concrete.
Parents searched frantically for their children amongst the ruins and piles of concrete.
The central government allocated more than 265 billion yuan in 2005 to improve rural education and school building quality over the next five years. Local governments were required to provide matching funds. But the blood that spilled in school yards
The central government allocated more than 265 billion yuan in 2005 to improve rural education and school building quality over the next five years. Local governments were required to provide matching funds. But the blood that spilled in school yards
Soldiers worked around the clock to try and rescue those who were still alive.
Soldiers worked around the clock to try and rescue those who were still alive.
The devastation was unbelievable.  At first, China wanted to use only their army for the rescue, but when the extent of the disaster became more apparent, finally agreed to let outsiders in to help.
The devastation was unbelievable. At first, China wanted to use only their army for the rescue, but when the extent of the disaster became more apparent, finally agreed to let outsiders in to help.
The special clothing worn by the volunteers.  My teaching assistant's boyfriend was one of the group of twenty who survived.
The special clothing worn by the volunteers. My teaching assistant's boyfriend was one of the group of twenty who survived.
Volunteers, untrained, unconcerned about their personal safety, pulls a body from the rubble.
Volunteers, untrained, unconcerned about their personal safety, pulls a body from the rubble.
Rescue workers rejoiced when they found children still clinging to life.
Rescue workers rejoiced when they found children still clinging to life.
Who knows for how long he was waiting to be rescued.
Who knows for how long he was waiting to be rescued.
One thing you know, those two fingers do not mean 'V' for 'Victory'.
One thing you know, those two fingers do not mean 'V' for 'Victory'.
Landslides also caused huge devastation.
Landslides also caused huge devastation.
Roads were made undrivable on.
Roads were made undrivable on.
Survivors had to camp in buildings and stadiums left standing.
Survivors had to camp in buildings and stadiums left standing.
Stadium of survivors.
Stadium of survivors.
The government is providing psychological counseling for the traumatised.
The government is providing psychological counseling for the traumatised.
Babies were delivered in carparks when women went into premature labour and hospitals collapsed.
Babies were delivered in carparks when women went into premature labour and hospitals collapsed.

A year later...

A year has passed since the devastating earthquake, and one has to wonder what the government has done to help the victims of this tragedy. Chinese TV stations are broadcasting special reports and programs to remember the earthquake. They are telling the general public that the government has set aside RMB85 billion for reconstruction in the Sichuan area devastated by the earthquake. Each family affected by the earthquake, received RMB10 000 from the central government, and additional money from local governments and aid agencies. For an average person living in Sichuan, RMB10 000 is a lot of money. But does it replace the loss of loved ones and all your possessions? The special reports tell of how student volunteers have gone into the mountainous regions of Sichuan to give up their time to teach the children survivors who lost their teachers. Much is made of how the government has sent psychologists in to counsel those who lost a child. To the average Chinese, what their government is doing to help the victims is commendable. However, one has to remember that the Chinese TV stations never broadcast what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Most Chinese don't even know what happened there as it was blocked from the Chinese news.

What has happened to the thousands of orphan children who lost their families?

Couples who lost a child were given first option to adopt one or more children who were orphaned in the earthquake. Even though China has a one child policy, the government has graciously granted dispensation for people to adopt more than one child. Women who lost their only child, are allowed to fall pregnant again and have another. While many overseas couples wanted to adopt Chines earthquake orphans, the government is very reluctant to allow this to happen. Unfortunately, orphanages in this area are overflowing with children missing limbs, brain-damaged and with special needs whom nobody wants to adopt.

Has the government done something about protecting people's safety by putting in stronger regulations when constructing schools and other public buildings?

Stronger regulations have been put in place to prevent poor construction of public buildings in the future. There are certain standards that have to be met for public buildings like schools, libraries and hospitals, that are higher than those for apartment buildings and shops. Reinforced concrete has to be used. The government is being seen to actively enforce these new safety standards in the Sichuan Province and other areas lying on earthquake faults.

This is all well and good but...

Amnesty International is concerned about how parents were harassed and detained for up to 21 days when asking questions as to why the school buildings were so unsafe, that they collapsed so easily, killing their children.  Some have been detained repeatedly.  Some lawyers fighting for compensation for parents of the children who died, were also detained.  Parents have been prevented from taking this matter to court and have been subjected to unlawful surveillance.  The very fact that all the information I have gathered on the collapsing schools in the Sichuan earthquake has had to be accessed through Proxy Box as China has blocked access to all sites which give 'negative' information about the earthquake, says a lot.

Here is a news report, banned in China, which I managed to access through Proxy. 

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The government of Mianyang, a city in Sichuan devastated by the earthquake on May 12, 2008, in a directive dated April 24 recommends "putting under surveillance" anyone who might "undermine social stability or are identified as trouble-making petitioners." For the anniversary of the disaster, the authorities want to avoid public protests by the families who lost their children in the collapse of the schools, denied any form of justice by Beijing. Meanwhile, new directives seek to prevent the risk of more suicides among officials in the area.

88,000 people died in the earthquake, including thousands of children, who died beneath the collapsed schools. The government says 6,000 students died, but has never provided their names or ages, which are treated as "secret." Other sources say 10,000 students died. The parents claim that the schools collapsed while the surrounding buildings remain standing. Beijing at first promised rapid investigations into those responsible, but recently banned any investigation into the causes of the collapses, officially attributed solely to the seriousness of the earthquake.

The artist Ai Weiwei has begun to assemble information on the students who died on his website. But the site has been censored, and Ai has denounced frequent threats by the police against those who gather such news.

Wang Xiaodong, a volunteer in Chengdu who helps parents there to gather evidence that the Beichai middle school (Mianyang) was built with material of poor quality, says that the police came to take down information about him.

It is a common conviction that victims are in part the consequence of buildings that were poorly constructed because of widespread corruption. After two important officials in the earthquake-stricken area committed suicide in the past 6 months, the authorities are seeking to provide psychological support for Party officials. New measures for psychological support were issued on April 27. A list is also being prepared of those who display "unstable emotional reactions and unusual behaviour," who will be subjected to attentive observation, and will have weekly meetings to discuss their situation.

But Song Shinan, a scholar at the University of Sichuan, tells the South China Morning Post that the real reason for the suicide and depression among the officials is having to face people affected by the earthquake every day, coming to ask for help and justice that the authorities frequently deny them.

He says that Feng Xiang, a Beichuan official who hung himself on April 20, "is a victim who lost his only son [who died in the collapse of the school] and wanted to learn the truth, as all other parents do. Instead, as the deputy director of the local propaganda department, he was ordered to conceal the truth."

The art of misinformation

While official figures give the death toll as being about 88 000, the truth is, they have no idea.  Sources related to high up officials whom I can't name here, have said that it is believed actual figures are closer to 120 000.  Whole towns collapsed killing all inhabitants.  The government has now admitted to about 6000 dead students, but won't release exact figures or the names of the children who died.  Sources believe this to be closer to 10 000 or more.

No mention has been made of the many volunteers who swarmed in to help and rescue the trapped and injured, who lost their own lives while trying to save others.  Thousands died in the many aftershocks in the days following the earthquake.  No mention was made of those unfortunate people.  What you do hear about, is how 30 minutes after the earthquake, the army was already been flown in to start the rescue process.  You don't hear about how many soldiers lost their lives while trying to save others by pulling them from the rubble.  You hear how the Chinese premier arrived at the destruction site 2 hours after the earthquake.  But as the build up to the Olympics started, the earthquake and its unfortunate victims faded away from the news, until recently when the government has decided it's ready to show the billions of Chinese what they have done for the earthquake survivors a year down the track.

We send our children to school, expecting them to be safe.  We never think to question whether the school building they are in, was built according to proper safety specifications and standards.

Powerpoint that was sent around at the time, recognising some of the heroes.

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    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Eileen, the thing is that the rest of the world was not shown the true picture of what really happened because the beijing Olympics was so close, China only wanted to show the good thi

    • Eileen Hughes profile image

      Eileen Hughes 7 years ago from Northam Western Australia

      It really annoys me that people can willingly kill and maim innocent people when natural disasters and tragic circumstances wipe out towns and cities without any need for wars or other horrible things.

      Very good but sad tragic hub. You have captured it all. thanks for sharing this.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Charia it was one of the most awful and tragic events thats happened in my lifetime.

    • Charia Samher profile image

      Charia Samher 8 years ago

      The photos gave me some chill. I just can’t hold back my tears. This misfortune had taken a lot of innocent children’s lives. I can’t blame these parents if until now they are still grieving for the lost of their child. This is so tragic.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Lissie, those that ran for the stairs also died. There was no escape at all as the buildings collapsed inwards and turned to ash.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 8 years ago from New Zealand

      It was tradegy - unfortunately not a natural one - the Chinese would have some of the wrost building standards around - they may have improved them but are they being followed, are older buildings being brought up to standard. I just wrote a hub on this as I am a geologist - if you are still in China and feel a shake - I have one piece of advice - run for the stairs - that's your best hope.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Yeah BP, we felt the tremors. In fact, they felt them all the way to Beijing and Bangkok, that's how big it was!

    • blondepoet profile image

      blondepoet 8 years ago from australia

      I have sobered up now ...am having a strong coffee. I had no idea the tragedy was so immense in China. Where you there at the time Cindy, in China?

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Yeah BP, tomorrow is the anniversary of the earthquake, think I'm going to make my class have a minute's silence.

    • blondepoet profile image

      blondepoet 8 years ago from australia

      Omg what a tragedy. It has made me very emotional Cindy and for once I am lost for words at the moment(hugs)

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Lucky that Spain doesn't seem to get them!

    • Ivan the Terrible profile image

      Ivan the Terrible 8 years ago from Madrid

      We heard about this in Spain and immediately people began to wonder if another Lisbon earthquake would occur shortly after. The Lisbon earthquake in the 1700's killied hundreds of thousands as well. We live at the crossroads of several tectonic plates and earthquakes in Italy, Portugal and North Africa surround us in Spain. Great writing and poignent observations.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks, AIDY. That's the exact point I always break down as well.

    • profile image

      Am I dead, yet? 8 years ago

      'dear child, if you survive, remember mom loves you forever...'

      this is where I broke down. it is good to read the stories from a disaster in a 'non-governmental' point of view. awesome work, Cindy.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks, Blue

    • R. Blue profile image

      R. Blue 8 years ago from Right here

      Another great job Sin Devine.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Tersa, what did it for me was the photo they had on a newspaper here, of about 20 five years olds lying packed like sardines in a small space surrounded and covered by large bits of concrete, all dead, with expressions of pain and terror frozen into their little faces. Their school should have been safe.

      Jama, I hate to see it, but it's the Japanese that are famous for their sense of 'honor' but any 'honor' Chinese might have had disappeared in the cultural revolution, when all the old, religion and culture was destroyed to make way for a peasant class unable to think for themselves.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Candie, yeah the images tell a lot. At the time, we had such graphic pictures in the newspapers here, I remember commenting that in the west we'd never be allowed to show such horrific pictures.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      It always go back to greed.  Use sub-standard materials and pocket the money.  88,000 or 100,000 people die as a result - so what?  As long as the corrupt ones get paid, they don't care.  Only a tragedy like this sheds sunshine on such despicable practices.  What ever happened to the Chinese sense of "honor"?

      Well done, Cindy.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 8 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Thank you for the research you have done here; for the facts and figures, and for the faces. I may be a silly old woman, but I honestly believe that if we become educated in the truths of such disasters, with their concomitant heroism and selflessness, we can stand witness to these deaths and somehow become, if only for a moment, better people. The boy carrying his little sister 12 miles did it for me. I'm in awe. And the little teacher trying to sheild her students' bodies.

      Thank you.

    • Candie V profile image

      Candie V 8 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

      Wonderful, cindy! Living in an earthquake area myself, I get this, but this is so much worse than what I've experienced. Pictures say so much more than words. My heart hurt for those lovely people. The pain clearly marked on their faces.

      Thank you for bringing a piece of humanity/life to those of us who never see these images.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Yeah, I just believe that the rest of the world needs to know what really happened as I don't think you guys got the full reports at the time.

    • profile image

      2C's 8 years ago

      I wondered. good for you and us

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks CC, this was supposed to be my hub on the Health and safety Hubmob, but I cocked up. I did have to rely on using proxybox to get some of the info, and I have a friend who is related to people working for the government, who let slip some info.

    • profile image

      2C's 8 years ago

      This is so chilling to my core. I am amazed that you could publish this from there! It is sad that it takes tragedy for a government to correct certain practices, we went through it too in SF 1908, Chicago, LA and many other places also the Grand Coulee Dam tragedy. Great hub cindy, thanks you did an xecellent job with this.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Yeah Christa, sometimes it's good to share the hard reality of life with your kids. I get tears everytime I look at some of those pics.

    • Christa Dovel profile image

      Christa Dovel 8 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America

      Hello Cindy,

      My boys and I read through this together, and would like to thank you for displaying the hard truth. They are in tears, for the children and the parents. I am too.

    • cindyvine profile image
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      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Ag, I kept asking myself afterwards, if I would lay down my life to try and save my students like many of those teacgers did.  The answer is, I don't really know if I would.  I suppose you only know what you're capable of at a time like that.

      FP, yes, a year has already gone by!  It is unbelievable as I can still remember the day it happened as we also felt small tremors in Nanjing.

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 8 years ago

      Is it a year already? The pictures were chilling then, and so they remain. As with all tragedies, time dims the images and the questions...thanks for giving us pause to think again Cindy.

    • agvulpes profile image

      Peter 8 years ago from Australia

      No that's not a tear in my eye, I swear. All the same it is very sad to see your pictures. But the courage of the rescuers shines through, and that poor young teacher who lost her life should be honored in some way.

      Cindy a lovely tribute.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Robyn, even now there are not exact figures of how many died.

      Shamel, I get a lump in my throat every time I look through some of those pictures. Our school collected baby food and canned goods to send to the survivors.

    • shamelabboush profile image

      shamelabboush 8 years ago

      Oh god, this is so sad cindyvine! Bringing on these pictures is great so we can remember those who lost their lives in that disaster. Well done cindy.

    • RobynW profile image

      RobynW 8 years ago from Taipei

      What a tragic event. I had a friend helping with the post disaster trauma counselling, and he had really sad stories to tell. I remember at the time he was saying that the enormity of the tragedy was kept quiet and thus they didn't get the help they needed quickly enough. Something similar happened in Burma too, and the Govt. refused all foreign help. It's hard to understand how a government could refuse its people help like that, all in order to save face.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      A lot of it was covered up because of the Olympics that was coming up

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 8 years ago from France

      not as much as we should have. It amazes me all the fuzz about the Swine Flu and so little coverage to a major disaster like the Chinese earthquake!

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks Princessa, I'm not sure how much the rest of the world heard about the Chinese earthquake last year.

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 8 years ago from France

      The images are so moving and sometimes disturbing. Thanks for remainding us about such tragedy. It is amazing how quick we erase this issues from our mind and forget about all the orphan children who survived and all the people who lost their homes or their lives to save others. Yuan Wentin is a hero, she was so brave the world has to know her. I am sure that there were and there are hundreds of Yuan's in the world whose work are never known but to the people close to them.

      Great thought-provoking hub Cindy.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Yeah Laila, the last pic of that 3 month old baby they rescued and the message his mum left on her cellphone makes me cry everytime.

    • Laila Rajaratnam profile image

      Laila Rajaratnam 8 years ago from India

      Cindy..am in tears at this huge human tragedy.We do salute the courageous rescuers and survivors.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks Perl, with the anniversary fast approaching, I just thought we need to remember what happened.

    • Purple Perl profile image

      Purple Perl 8 years ago from Bangalore,India

      A natural disaster and human courage seen at its best!

      Thanks cindy for showcasing this with excellent pictures!:)

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks for the comment, GM

    • GeneriqueMedia profile image

      GeneriqueMedia 8 years ago from Earth

      Well done.

      I remember feeling so saddened at this turn of events...I forget the comedian but he once said "China is the kind of place where you walk around and say 'stop furking!!!' you go out your back door and slam into the person across the dirt path's front door."

      So, its always traumatic to see such disaster. I only hope they can steadily grow to become better at making places with stronger infrastructure.

      China, after all, is sitting on a lot of water.

      G|M

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Was a very tragic event!

    • profile image

      LAmatadora 8 years ago

      So very very sad....so many people including innocent beautiful children lost their lives...So tragic