In the minutes after the May 12 earthquake, the students lined up row by row on the outdoor basketball courts of Sangzao Middle School. When the head count was complete, their fate was clear: All 2,323 were alive.
Parents covered in blood and dust hugged them and cried. So did the school principal, Ye Zhiping.
“That was the single most joyful thing,” he said.
Given that some 10,000 other children were crushed in their classrooms during the devastating quake, the survival of so many students in Sangzao counts as a minor miracle. Students and parents credit that to the man they call “Angel Ye.”
Nervous about the shoddiness of the buildings, Ye scraped together US$60,000 to renovate it in the 1990s. He had workers widen concrete pillars and insert iron rods into them. He demanded stronger balcony railings. A bathroom whose pipes had been weakened was demolished.
His school in Peace County was very likely to have withstood the 8-magnitude earthquake because he pushed the county government to upgrade it. Just 32km north, the collapse of Beichuan Middle School buried 1,000 students and teachers.
Ye’s tale sheds light on the lax building codes in this mountainous corner of Sichuan Province and what might have been done to address well-known shortcomings. In his case, a personal commitment and a relatively petty amount of cash sufficed to avert tragedy.
“We learned a lesson from this earthquake: The standards for schools should have been improved,” Ye, 55, said in a recent interview. “The standards now are still not enough.”
Ye not only shored up the building’s structure, but also had students and teachers prepare for a disaster. They rehearsed an emergency evacuation plan twice a year. Because of that, students and teachers say, everyone managed to flee in less than two minutes on May 12.
“We’re very thankful,” said Qiu Yanfang, 62, the grandmother of a student, as she sat outside the school knitting a brown sweater. “The principal helped ease the nation’s loss, both the psychological loss and the physical loss.”
Sangzao is a farming town of 30,000 where merchants sell vegetables from blankets on a rutted market road. It has two middle schools, one administered by the township, where a dormitory collapsed during the earthquake, and the other administered by the county. Ye works in the second, where families from across northern Sichuan send their children because of the school’s reputation.
A large billboard on the school grounds lists the names of 90 students who earned top scores on a national exam last year.
The school is one of the largest in Peace County. It has a half-dozen dormitory buildings and two classroom buildings, all five stories or lower. One of the classroom buildings was constructed after 2000, the other between 1983 and 1985.
The older one worried Ye when he became principal 12 years ago.
It is a four-story white building with large, tinted-glass windows and blue, metal railings running along balconies onto which classrooms open.
“Quality inspectors were supposed to be here to oversee construction of this building,” he said. “When the foundation was laid, they should have been here. When the concrete was put into the pillars, they should have been here. But they weren’t.”
“In the end, no government official dared to come inspect this building because it was built without any standards,” he said.