The parents were told to group themselves according to their children’s classes, and as they lined up they numbly exchanged stories of loss. “When they pulled my boy out he kept begging for water but then he died,” said Wang Chaoping, holding a passport-sized photo of his 16-year-son, Wang Tinghai. “He wasn’t the best student, but he loved sports.”
Some parents came hugging framed photographs and dogeared achievement awards, placing them on the spot where their sons and daughters died under heaps of broken concrete. The men set off fireworks to chase away evil spirits as wads of paper money smoldered amid the rubble.
Then a dirge began playing over the loudspeaker, and all at once the women doubled over in agony, a chorus of 100 mothers wailing over the loss of an only child. The husbands wept in silence, paralyzed by the storm of emotion.
“We worked so hard to raise you, and then you left us so suddenly,” a woman screamed, pounding the ruins of the Juyuan Middle School with her fists. “How could you leave us to grow old alone?”
The parents whose children attended Juyuan were mostly farmers and factory workers, and the harshness of their lives, and their loss, was etched in their faces. Many, like Li Ping, 43, said they had lived frugally in order to pay obligatory fees for meals and a bed in the dormitory, which withstood the quake with nary a crack.
“I put all my hope in my one child,” said Li, who has been unable to work because of chronic liver disease. “They were supposed to support us in old age.” He started to well up but then stopped himself. “We’re not asking the government for money,” he said. “We just want them to tell us why they died.”