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Report pins school damage on quake, not construction flaws

A GOVERNMENT investigation has found that schools in southwest China destroyed by last May's magnitude 8.0 earthquake collapsed because of the size of the tremor, rejecting claims that some were weakened by construction flaws, an official said yesterday.

Thousands of students were trapped under their crumpled classrooms, many of which tumbled while surrounding buildings withstood the devastating tremor.

Wei Hong, deputy governor of Sichuan Province, the worst-hit area, said officials were still calculating the number of dead children, nearly a year after the quake. Overall, more than 80,000 people were killed and thousands listed as missing.

"We will publicize the result after we finish the calculation," said Wei, who was attending the annual session of the Chinese legislature in Beijing.

Earlier reports said thousands of students were killed in the quake and officials were believed to bear some responsibility because of shoddy construction of school buildings.

After the earthquake, the government pledged greater efforts to investigate why many schools crumbled while nearby buildings remained standing.

Bereaved parents say corrupt officials or construction firms pocketed some of the cash meant for schoolrooms and instead bought cheaper, substandard materials.

But Wei said an investigation by engineers and government officials showed that the quake was the cause of the tragedy.

Large-scale tremor

"The scale of the earthquake was very big, and it was very strong, so that was the main and most important reason schools and some other buildings were damaged," Wei said, presenting the conclusion of the long-promised study.

The quake's destructive force was "one or two degrees" stronger than that which the schoolhouses had been designed to withstand, and the wide range of geological conditions in the quake zone meant each area was affected in different ways, he said.

Wei said the conclusions followed an investigation by engineering experts from Tsinghua University and official experts from Sichuan Province.

He did not directly address the issue of why schools beyond the worst-hit cities - where few buildings were left standing - appeared more prone to collapse than surrounding structures.

In September, a Chinese scientist acknowledged that a rush to build schools in recent years likely led to construction flaws that caused so many of them to collapse - the first official admission that low building standards may have been behind the students' deaths.

In December, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress passed a law saying that all schools must now be built to higher earthquake standards than other public buildings.

Wei told reporters yesterday that some 95 percent of the damaged school buildings in Sichuan should be restored by the end of 2009. Half of the campuses are now under construction.

The province has also stepped up the rebuilding of homes.

Wei also said the government was working hard to tackle corruption and strengthen oversight.


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