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Finally, a figure: 5,335 kids dead, missing in quake

CHINA said yesterday that 5,335 students have been confirmed dead or missing as a result of last year's Sichuan Province earthquake - the first time the number has been reported since the May 12 temblor shook the country's southwest.

Another 546 students were disabled in the 8-magnitude quake, Tu Wentao, head of the provincial education department, told a news conference.

The revelations caught some people by surprise.

"I thought the government wouldn't touch such a sensitive topic with the one-year anniversary of the quake approaching," said Huang Yong, 42, of Leigu Township in Beichuan County, one of the worst-hit areas. Huang's 10th-grade son, Huang Yiran, was killed in the collapse of the Beichuan Middle School.

"Releasing the number is a message to the ill-fated kids," he said.

His view was shared by Chen Dingfu of Longtou Village, also in Beichuan.

"This is great progress ... The government never released the number of dead students before," he said.

Thousands of Sichuan schools collapsed in the quake. Figures from the provincial education department showed that 3,340 schools needed to be rebuilt after the disaster.

Many bereaved parents took to the streets, questioning construction quality and demanding a reply from local governments.

Sichuan Province has pledged to have 95 percent of the students back in school buildings, and out of tents and prefabricated structures, before the end of this year. All students should be in regular school buildings by next spring, and stronger classrooms are being built.

China's national legislature amended its law on earthquake precautions and disaster relief last year to require that schools and hospitals be designed to withstand strong earthquakes. School buildings must be able to survive quakes of at least magnitude 8.

The new law took effect last Friday, but it failed to comfort some grieving parents.

"We are too old to have children any more," Chen said. "It was hard to raise our children. Now that they are gone, we need to find out how the school buildings collapsed."

The release of the death toll seems to have encouraged him, however.

"I expect the government to launch a thorough investigation into school building quality," he said.

Huang said: "If there is a quality problem with school buildings, those who are responsible must be punished."

At the news conference, Yang Hongbo, head of the provincial construction department, said that a group of 2,500 experts had investigated the quality issue. They found that the quake was too strong for the old buildings in Sichuan, most of which were designed for tremors no greater than magnitude 7.

He reiterated the pledge that, "We will investigate and severely punish companies according to the law once there is concrete evidence to prove problems existed in building design and construction."

A bereaved mother who declined to be identified had another wish.

"I hope the names of the dead children can be publicized," she said. "I want more people to know that my daughter lived in this world for seven years. I want them to know her name."

The total death toll from the quake stands at 68,712. Another 17,921 people are listed as missing. About 4.45 million people were injured and more than 7,000 people disabled.

Officials said yesterday that it takes time for local governments to re-classify the missing as dead. Under the law, relatives can apply to have people registered as dead two years after they have been counted as missing in an accident or disaster.


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