BEIJING - Zhang Chenggen began last Tuesday morning as he did most, eating breakfast with his 11-year-old son, Zhang Yi. After a bowl of porridge and some buns, the boy headed off to school in their small, poor village of Fanglin in the mountains of Central China's Jiangxi province.
As lunchtime approached, Zhang Chenggen was chatting at home with neighbors when he heard the explosion. He rushed to the scene, where he found the two-story school half-demolished with black smoke rising from the ruins.
Parents were crying. Children were screaming. Some were still buried amid the wreckage.
"There were naked corpses with all their hair and clothing gone," Zhang Chenggen recalled in a phone interview yesterday. "I felt a headache and heartache because I didn't see my kid."
After recognizing Zhang Yi's clothing amid the debris, he began to dig out his son's body from beneath the mud. He carried the boy, who was barely breathing, to a government car and sped toward the hospital. Zhang Yi died on the way.
The explosion killed 42 people - most of them children - and injured 27, according to Xinhua, China's government-run news service. Zhang Chenggen and other parents blame the blast on what they say is a widespread phenomenon in the hills of western Jiangxi: schoolchildren making firecrackers during class time.
Echoing the stories of others, Zhang Chenggen said his boy was forced to spend half or a full day each week during the winter plugging fuses into firecrackers under teachers' instruction. Zhang said such arrangements are typical in Jiangxi's Wanzai County, which lies 480 miles southwest of Shanghai and has made fireworks manufacturing a cottage industry.
According to parents in Fanglin and state media reports, children in lower grades made fuses, and those in higher grades made the actual firecrackers. Teachers issued quotas and gave small rewards, including pencils and notebooks, to those who exceeded them.
Some students who refused to comply were forced to kneel on the floor as punishment, and their families were required to pay the school 25 cents.
"This is very common," Zhang says of Wanzai County. "Ninety percent of the primary schools operate as fireworks factories."
Despite parents' statements to the contrary, China's central government denies that the school made fireworks and is blaming the explosion on a madman. Xinhua reported that a mentally ill 33-year-old named Li Chuicai - whom the news service said other villagers referred to as "psycho" - rode to the school on his bicycle with two bags of fireworks and set them off.
"Certainly it's not the case that this primary school was trying to earn some money by renting out space to store materials for fireworks," Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji told Hong Kong reporters on Thursday. "I was most worried that it could have been that. Now investigations show it's not that."
Police said they found a sheet of paper in Li's home which suggested he was planning to take his own life. "I will sacrifice myself. ... blast all burn all ... at least to kill scores of them. ... all is over," Xinhua quoted the note as saying.
The Liaoshen Evening News reported that a third-grade teacher named Deng Chengbao said a man broke into his second-period class, put a bag on a student's desk and lighted a fuse.
"He had a murderous look on his face," the newspaper quoted Deng as saying.
Determining exactly what happened in Fanglin isn't easy.
Local officials put up roadblocks outside the village after the explosion and detained three foreign correspondents who tried to enter. A Chinese newspaper reporter on the scene said journalists had to receive permission from county officials before filing stories, Reuters reported.
The explosion would be horrifying in any country, but it is particularly humiliating for China. In recent weeks, the regime has been assailed for its worsening human rights record, which critics say includes widespread and systematic torture as well as the imprisonment of more than 200,000 people without the benefit of trial.
China is desperate to avoid bad publicity these days. In July, the International Olympic Committee will vote on Beijing's bid to play host to the 2008 Summer Games.
Remarkably, China's state-run media - which usually speaks uniformly on sensitive events like this - seems split on the Fanglin explosion.
Major news agencies such as Xinhua have trumpeted the central government's line, while regional papers such as Shanghai's Xinming Evening News have reported the parents' claim that the school was a fireworks factory.
People in Fanglin are furious with Premier Zhu's denials. Yesterday, one demanded a reporter provide the premier's phone number so he could complain personally - an unusually audacious idea in this authoritarian state.