Asia Crisis

Chinese quake investigator pinpoints school failings

BEIJING, May 30 (Reuters) - An official investigator has said one of the schools that crumpled during China's earthquake, killing hundreds, was fatally weakened by poor design and materials, adding weight to grieving parents' claims of deadly failings.

The death toll from the May 12 earthquake centred in southwest China's Sichuan province is more than 68,500 and is sure to rise with 20,000 missing. Based on calculations from Chinese news reports, the dead include at least 9,000 students and teachers whose schools fell or were buried under landslides.

Many parents have said their children were crushed in shoddy school buildings that toppled while nearby apartments and government offices stayed upright.

Chen Baosheng, an expert from Tongji University in Shanghai, told a Chinese newspaper that was certainly true of the Juyuan Middle School, where hundreds of children died.

"There were certainly problems with site selection, the building's structure and structural features, the construction and materials," Chen, a member of an investigation team under the Ministry of Construction, told the Southern Weekend.

Steel reinforcement rods in the building's concrete were too thin, and pillar supports were not properly attached, Chen said.

"It was to be expected that a building like this collapsed in an earthquake and it would have been strange only if it didn't," he added.

The public acknowledgement comes as grieving parents begin to demand compensation and criminal investigations. One of those parents at Juyuan, Dong Tianjian, said they were retaining lawyers and considering taking their demands to Beijing.

"We want the government to listen to us and act fast," she said by telephone. "We feel many people are supporting us."

The paper said 278 children and teachers died when the building near the city of Dujiangyan collapsed. Dong and a teacher had earlier told Reuters that up to 500 of some 1,300 students may have died.

A Sichuan education official on Thursday withdrew from the Beijing Olympic torch rally in atonement for the poor construction that caused so many schools to collapse.

"So many children have died, and our responsible departments and our designers, architects and structural engineers should all reflect on this," Chen said.

Ashley Howlett, a lawyer with the Jones Day law firm in Beijing who specialises in China's building sector, said the country had an array of building rules but enforcement could be lax, especially in smaller cities and towns.

"It's the enforcement, and the consistency of enforcement, that is a big issue," Howlett said in an interview. (Editing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani); +86 10 66271261