Hopes dim for students in school hit by quake

Families seek children among bodies pulled from building's rubble

January 28, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

AHMEDABAD, India - The floors of a collapsed school are stacked like four thick slices of bread, and crushed between them are dozens of the sons and daughters of India's striving middle class, trapped when a powerful earthquake struck this thriving city in western India on Friday.

Yesterday, rescue workers armed with drills, cranes and bulldozers, but mostly using their bare hands, continued a desperate effort to save the high school students buried in the rubble, but all they dragged out were lifeless bodies - adding to the death toll of 2,400 across the state of Gujarat.

Each story of loss has its own poignancy, but the fate of the students at the Swamimarayan school seems especially cruel.

The teen-agers with dreams of being doctors, computer scientists and engineers had come to school for an extra science lab on Republic Day, a national holiday when Indian schoolchildren stay home.

About 65 of them showed up Friday morning at 7:30 with their physics instruments and chemistry books. They were in the middle of their lab at 8:46 a.m. when the building started shaking.

Pragna Jagdishthandra, 16, was sitting next to the door of her classroom when the earthquake began. She fled for the stairs. A trail of panicked students raced behind her. She made it out as the four-story school building, less than a year old, crumbled from front to back with a thunderous roar. Others - she is not sure how many - escaped as well.

Friday afternoon, rescuers saved five students who survived because pillars kept the roof from flattening them. "We heard children crying, `Please save us,'" said D. K. Mishra, a doctor with the government's rapid action force, a paramilitary unit for emergencies.

But no living children have been pulled from the wreckage since Friday afternoon. Eight dead students were found Friday, and 20 more were found yesterday. Officials said there could be 10 more buried in the rubble.

Yesterday, families and friends of the students, and people from the neighborhood, lined a hot, dusty alley behind the private school. They formed a sorrowful farewell line for the youths carried out on stretchers.

From perches on the rooftops of surrounding buildings - all of which remained standing - people watched and wept as volunteers and members of the rapid action force dragged body after body from the school. People lifted the cloths that covered the faces of the students as they passed, to see if they knew the victims.

M. Jaysukhlalani, an accountant and father of a missing son, waited at the end of the line next to an ambulance. He had been there for 29 hours waiting for his youngest son. But none of the four dead boys brought out yesterday afternoon was his Sunil.

Like many in Ahmedabad, he noticed that most of the buildings in the city withstood the earthquake, while more than 100 like his son's school collapsed.

And like many others, he believed that shoddy construction was to blame. He bitterly wonders if some politically connected person got bureaucrats to look the other way, while using sand in place of cement.

He talked of one person's impotence against corruption - a common complaint in India.

Police Inspector N. B. Parmar, who was supervising the rescue effort yesterday, agreed that the building appeared to lack sufficient cement and said it will be investigated.

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