Jiegu, China Her roommates used to call her a “lazy pig” for trying to sleep in before class. But Song Yuhuan’s slowness to get out of bed saved her life — the girls who rushed from their dorm were crushed by the walls collapsing in an earthquake that leveled their town and left 1,484 dead.
Song was trapped briefly by Wednesday morning’s quake, a leg and arm pinned under a wall of the third-floor room. Instead of panicking, she felt a steely calm as the others around her screamed.
“Stop screaming,” she told them, “and I’ll get out first and then I’ll help you.” An aftershock a few minutes later allowed her to slip free.
But three of her seven roommates died, and a fourth was still missing. Officials say more than 40 of her classmates at the Minorities Vocational School died, and at least 103 students in this remote Tibetan corner of western China were killed.
President Hu Jintao flew into the quake zone today to visit victims, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Hu cut short a trip to South America to deal with the disaster.
The exiled Dalai Lama said Saturday he’d like to visit the site, though he has never returned to China since he fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
“To fulfill the wishes of many of the people there, I am eager to go there myself to offer them comfort,” the Tibetan spiritual leader said. China hasn’t commented but is unlikely to allow a visit after long accusing the Dalai Lama of fomenting separatism in Tibetan areas.
On Saturday, monks in face masks set ablaze piles of blanket-wrapped bodies in a mass cremation, as necessity forced them to break with the tradition of sky burials — leaving their dead out for vultures.
Hundreds of villagers sat watching on the hillside, while monks chanted and prayed for the dead.
Life also showed the first small signs of returning to normal, with residents crowding to buy food from makeshift sidewalk stores.
The ruddy-cheeked, 18-year-old Song continued to stand and watch as a rescue squad dug at the mangled pile of concrete that used to be her dorm. She was still wearing the tracksuit and purple sweat shirt with the word “Pittsburgh” she had on when the quake hit, and a pair of mismatched shoes.
Among the dead was her best friend, who had just put a drink for Song on their windowsill before running out when the shaking started and being crushed by the door frame. Song knew other victims. The class hunk, known for checking out his hair during class, was crushed by a wall as he rode his motorcycle to school.
Up to five students were thought to still be somewhere under the collapsed buildings.
“If the boss of the construction company were here, I would ask him, if his daughter was here, would he have used shoddy materials?” Song asked, her voice wavering and tears welling in her eyes. She looked at the half-flattened girls’ dorm. “Why is this side still standing and this side flat?”
Most of the buildings on the campus were still standing, if damaged, including the cafeteria, where most of the school’s 1,800 students were when the quake hit Wednesday morning.
“The cafeteria didn’t collapse. If it had, it would have been much worse. The death toll would be much higher,” said Danzhen Cairen, deputy chief of the local education bureau.
The quake destroyed more than a third of the school buildings in Jiegu and rendered the rest dangerous, according to a statement on the Qinghai provincial government’s news Web site. It said 684 students and teachers were wounded and another 73 were either buried in rubble or missing.
Shattered schools remain a sensitive issue in China, where a devastating 2008 quake killed thousands of students during class, and the buildings and code enforcement were found to be inferior. But Wednesday’s quake flattened schools and other buildings alike.
Overall, 312 people were still missing as of Saturday evening. Officials said another 12,088 were injured, including 1,394 seriously.