Image: Students after quake
Achmad Ibrahim  /  AP
Kashmiri students study inside a tent on Thursday after the Narol Government Girls High School was destroyed during the Oct. 8 earthquake in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.
updated 11/11/2005 4:45:49 PM ET 2005-11-11T21:45:49

The two buildings of Narol Government Girls High School lie side by side: the older one cracked like a jigsaw but still standing, the newer one reduced to a pile of rubble where 84 students died.

A month after the killer earthquake hit Kashmir and northern Pakistan, parents, teachers and rights workers are demanding to know whether the collapse of thousands of schools was due to shoddy construction.

The 7.6-magnitude quake struck just as classes were starting on Oct. 8, and about half of the estimated 86,000 killed in Pakistan were children. An additional 1,350 people died in India.

Grieving survivors invariably view the losses of loved ones with a large measure of religious fatalism, but that’s mixed with frustration and cynicism over how so many public buildings — notably schools and hospitals — tumbled down.

Parveen Manshard Abbasi, the only teacher to escape alive from the building at the Narol High School that collapsed, remembers running out of the ground-floor staff room moments before tons of masonry buckled and fell. In all, 84 of the school’s 307 students died, as well as six of its staff, including the principal.

“It was a construction problem. They did not use enough cement and blocks and pillars,” she maintained, sitting outside the two tents pitched by the ruins where classes have restarted. “The government must stop it from happening again.”

2,700 schools destroyed
The quake destroyed or left unusable about 2,700 schools in Pakistani Kashmir and 7,000 in the neighboring North West Frontier Province, local officials said. In Kashmir alone, 3,040 students and 207 teachers were crushed to death — although that’s seen as a conservative estimate. Some bodies have yet to be retrieved.

Last month, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said the earthquake exposed glaring failures in school construction.

“They were deathtraps,” Egeland said. “We have to build schools all over the world that are not deathtraps, that are earthquake proof.”

Pressure is growing on authorities to investigate private contractors who typically build schools after winning a competitive bidding process — and apparent government failures to regulate their construction work effectively.

Bushra Gohar of the Human Resource Management and Development Center, a nongovernment group based in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, demanded an independent investigation into the many school collapses. She said schools even in areas relatively unaffected by the quake had been destroyed, and blamed poor building standards on graft.

“Everybody knows that there is corruption in the construction system in the public sector, and almost 50 percent of the funds allocated for the construction of a building are siphoned off,” she said.

Siraj ul-Haq, senior minister for the North West Frontier Province, said a senior six-member committee would investigate the large-scale destruction of public buildings there and report its findings within two months.

Mansoor Ahmed Naqshbandi, director of schools in Pakistani Kashmir, conceded that a “deficiency” in construction had contributed to the collapse of schools, but noted all kinds of structures, including countless private houses, fell down as well. He said it was not feasible now to pursue contractors.

“Everything is still in ruins. We’re not at the stage to explore these things, but we can learn from it,” he said in his cracked office in Muzaffarabad.

'Water dripped inside'
Five teachers said they had previously suspected poor construction at Narol High School, even in the single-story building that withstood the quake. It was built in 1983, about 12 years before the structure that collapsed.

“We were afraid the old one would fall down. Whenever it rained, water dripped inside and the ceiling fans did not work,” said Uneesa, a teacher who goes by one name.

Didar Ali, the father of one injured student and uncle to another, is fatalistic about what happened at the school.

His 14-year-old niece Anum Batur was pulled from the rubble — her life probably saved by a teacher whose dead body landed on top of her, cushioning her from the impact of the falling roof. Anum suffered a broken leg and collar bone.

“Either the construction materials were no good,” Ali said, sitting cross-legged inside his family’s tent at a nearby camp. “Or it was the will of Allah.”

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