Modern apartment buildings and schools crumbled, smoothly paved highways buckled and bridges collapsed — their flimsy construction no match for the awesome forces of nature.
As the death toll soars from the powerful earthquake that ravaged central China's Sichuan province, the scale of the devastation is raising questions about the quality of China's recent construction boom.
"This building is just a piece of junk," one newly homeless resident of Dujiangyan yelled Wednesday, her body quivering with rage. Her family salvaged clothing and mementos from their wrecked apartment, built when their older home was razed 10 years ago.
"The government tricked us. It told us this building was well constructed. But look at the homes all around us, they're still standing," said the woman, who would give only her surname, Chen.
High-paced growth, lax building codes
Three decades of high-paced growth have remade China, with stunning showcase metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai as well as formerly tiny county towns that are now small cities with office towers and multistory apartment buildings. But as the widespread devastation from Monday's magnitude-7.9 quake shows, the pell-mell pace has led some builders to cut corners, especially in outlying areas largely populated by the very young and the very old.
"This new economy in China is not going up safely, it's going up fast, and the two don't go together," said Roger Bilham, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "You look at the buildings that fell and they should not have fallen," he said. "This is a story that has been repeated throughout the developing nations."
New buildings in Beijing — like the signature "Bird's Nest" National Stadium for this August's Olympics — are built to exacting codes to withstand earthquakes. But "anti-earthquake standards are not as strict in places like Sichuan as in Shanghai," said Ren Bing, an architectural designer at Hong Kong-based China Construction International Co.
Monday's temblor flattened smaller towns in the disaster zone like Yingxiu, where 7,700 people were reported to have died according to aerial footage shown on state-run China Central Television. A hilltop view of Beichuan, another hard-hit town, showed entire blocks of apartment buildings that seemingly disintegrated.
In Dujiangyan city, where rescuers saved a woman eight months pregnant who was trapped for 50 hours under a collapsed apartment building, there was little evidence of steel reinforcement bars in the concrete rubble.
Other infrastructure old and new suffered as well. Nearly 400 dams, most of them small, were damaged across Sichuan, the government's economic planning agency said on its Web site. One of the two bigger ones, Zipingpu, had cracks four inches across its top; and though the government said the dam was safe, its reservoir was drained.
China is jolted by thousands of earthquakes every year, at least several of them major ones that cause significant damage and loss of life. Since the 1976 quake in Tangshan near Beijing killed at least 240,000 people, the communist government has tried to improve building standards.
"China has been taking earthquake safety very seriously in the past 10 to 20 years," said Susan Tubbesing, head of the California-based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. "From what I understand, the codes China has adopted in the past 20 years have been good, solid, seismic codes."
Enforcement, however, varies. The building boom that has underpinned much of the stunning growth has also been an invitation for corruption, with officials and developers colluding. Profit margins are thinner on smaller projects in less prosperous places, encouraging developers to cut corners.
In larger cities like Shanghai, authorities generally enforce regulations. But that isn't always true in smaller cities. And in rural areas, it's out of the question, says Andrew Smeall, an associate at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York.
"The cost of trying to go back and make sure everything is built to code would be prohibitive," he said.
It wasn't just newer buildings that collapsed.
Sichuan, like many parts of China, is dotted with factories left over from Maoist policies of building up industries far from the coasts for strategic reasons.
In Hanwang, the town's mostly older buildings were flattened or severely damaged by the quake. A newer five-story clock tower, its face stopped at 2:27 — the time the earthquake struck — remained eerily intact.
"They are more than 30 years old," Wu Hao, a factory worker who dashed out of his apartment with his wife seconds before it collapsed, said of the destroyed buildings. "That could be why the damage was so great."
Construction standards can be a sensitive issue in a country where millions have been forced out of their homes to make way for urban renewal projects. A professor of engineering at Shanghai's Tongji University refused to discuss the issue Wednesday, saying it was too "touchy."
Staggering death toll
But a commentary in Wednesday's state-run China Daily did question the staggering death toll, especially in schools wrecked by the quake.
"We cannot afford not to raise uneasy questions about the structural quality of school buildings," the newspaper said, suggesting an investigation might find builders to blame.
Part of the earthquake zone sits on a hard marble bedrock, and builders often do not set foundations deep, viewing such precautions as difficult and unnecessary, said Ren, the designer.
Ideal building materials include a mixture of steel and concrete that work together to absorb the stresses of a quake, Bilham said.
But based on photos of the disaster area, many buildings were rigid concrete-frame structures that lack flexibility and, in an earthquake, would usually pancake, floor upon floor, Tubbesing said.
That's what happened to Chen's home, which dropped from the third story to the second.
In Dujiangyan, about 10 percent of buildings collapsed entirely and almost all suffered some damage. Many of the worst collapses were of four-to-six-story buildings built of unreinforced brick and hollow concrete slabs.
At a high school in Juyuan, all but a handful of 900 upper class students were crushed when their school collapsed in a matter of seconds, though neighboring buildings appeared little affected.
"These buildings just weren't made for that powerful of a quake. Some don't even meet the basic specifications," said Dai Jun, a structural engineer and concrete specialist in Chengdu who was surveying damage in the area.
At a nationally televised news conference Tuesday, one Chinese reporter asked officials why it was that so many schools collapsed while there were few reports of government offices toppling.
The response from Wang Zhenyao, the Civil Affairs Ministry's top disaster relief official, was to point out that his own agency's office in Beichuan had collapsed, possibly causing deaths and injuries.
"Government offices aren't all that sturdy either," he said.