'We dug for seven hours to find our daughter's body'

In the broken remains of their home, a family is preparing to bid farewell to their daughter. Zhou Yating was 16 when the earthquake struck Juyuan Middle School. Even as the funerals begin, strong aftershocks remind people that this catastrophe might not yet have run its course.

The family is gathered around a red, white and blue striped tent with two large funeral wreaths leaning against it, and candles standing on either side of the entrance. Inside the tent is a picture of Yating, a pretty Sichuan girl with a side parting and a resolute expression, with the framed photograph surrounded by offerings of food for the afterlife.

Her grandparents are burning symbolic paper money on a pile in front of the shrine, and smoke billows up in front of this sad memorial to a life snatched away when the earth shook for five terrible minutes.

"The candles are to light her way to the other side and the money is there to make sure she is looked after when she gets there. She loved sports, a Communist Party member, she was the best student in her school," says her grandfather, Zhou Shugen.

Yating's mother comes from the kitchen, which is now open to the street because the wall is gone, and looks in disbelief at the shrine, as if seeing it for the first time. She appears like she doesn't know where to put her hands, distracted by grief.

"I want my daughter to go peacefully. This is a disaster, we've no way out," says her mother, Wang Kanghua, 39.

They are holding Yating's funeral at a time when relief efforts are still continuing, but everyone is fearful of aftershocks. A strong aftershock of 5.5 magnitude caused landslides at Wenchuan, a town close to the epicentre of the earthquake, cutting off sections of roads just reopened, burying cars and trucks and adding to the woes of the people of Sichuan.

Survivors were still being pulled from the rubble in places, even after being buried for four days. The government has raised the official death toll to 21,500 but has said fatalities could rise above 50,000. Tens of thousands are still thought to be buried in collapsed buildings in Sichuan.

The initial quake, which was 7.9 magnitude, took place at 2.30pm on Monday and Yating's mother rushed to the school near Dujiangyan city as soon as the tremors had stopped. The school is just a few hundred metres away from the house, and she ran with her relatives to the appalling scene. "We were already there by the time the rescue team arrived at 3pm," she says. "We dug for seven hours with our bare hands to find my daughter's body.

"She was dead, her hands and feet were all injured," she says as the final ritual preparations are being made. Ms Wang is desperately keen to communicate that she did everything she could to find her daughter. Everything humanly possible.

People come by and bow respectfully in front of the makeshift shrine. As the patriarch, Grandfather Zhou is in charge of giving cigarettes and other gifts to well-wishers, accepting their condolences, as is the tradition, while the mother is cooking what feeble scraps they have to offer visitors.

The scene is a reminder that despite headlines about glistening skyscrapers in Shanghai, BMWs on the streets and Olympic grandeur, China is still a very poor country. And there is no commodity more precious than children, especially in a country where people are limited to a single offspring by the one child policy.

"Yating is my only child, she was about to take the high school entrance exams. Her grades were great and she worked hard," says Ms Wang.

Yating's father is building a tomb in the family's ancestral home of Wolong Cun, in the countryside one kilometre away, and she will be buried today. In China mourners wear white, not black, and funeral processions are led by men clashing cymbals and playing bleating trumpets, while other mourners set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. There were also volleys of firecrackers during the search for bodies in the school to signal the body of a teenager had been identified.

The Juyuan Middle School collapsed quickly, killing about 700 of the 900 students inside. Because it happened in the early afternoon, most of the children were at school. After lunch, children in Chinese schools take a nap, so many were sleeping when the quake happened, while others were doing their afternoon schoolwork. The mud around the school was littered with notebooks and textbooks. One small boy was found with his pen in his hand.

The fate of the Juyuan Middle School and hundreds more around the province – nearly 7,000 classrooms all told – highlights a belief that building standards for schools are poor. Nature, evil spirits, were responsible for the earthquake, but penny-pinching or corrupt bureaucrats are behind the poor construction of the buildings, local people feel.

"Why did our school collapse but that building stays up?" asked one parent on the day after the quake destroyed the school, pointing to another nearby building, hysterical with grief.

Others standing around nodding in angry agreement – the feeling that the poor get shoddy buildings while the privileged get the earthquake-proofed buildings is strong, and this sentiment is repeated at various sites around the earthquake zone.

Han Jin, head of the Ministry of Education's development and planning department, said on a state-run online forum that the government would investigate building standards in schools.

"If quality problems do exist in the school buildings, we will punish those responsible severely and give the public a satisfactory answer," said Mr Han.

Just down the street from Yating's house, Xiao Wenyi, 22, is also burying a loved one, his sister Dong Yang, who was 17 when she died. The family is currently bivouacked in a tarpaulin-covered tent because their house is too dangerous to enter. "We found her body the day after. My little sister Yang loved to read books, and loved her music," he says.

By the end of the week, Dujiangyan city is still packed with rescue workers and dozens of army trucks line the streets near the school. Digging for bodies has stopped and soldiers are disinfecting the site – there are fears of disease in the quake zone becoming the next problem, a plague from all of the dead bodies lying around the worst hit areas. The stories you hear on the streets of Dujiangyan, which lies about 50km (30 miles) from the epicentre of the quake, are grim. In the shops and houses, people are trying to gather up what little belongings are left and heading on to refugee camps. After a week in hell, now comes the new challenge of putting their lives back together.

But there are occasional glimpses of possibly happier times ahead. Luo Yu is excited about travelling to Dujiangyan to see his parents and his 10-month-old twin boys, Dingding and Dangdang. He grips a plastic bag with fruit, some sweets and documents. "I'm going to see my parents and my children. I live and work in Mianyang, and my parents look after the children in Dujiangyan," he says. "I haven't been able to get in and see them yet, but they're OK. After the quake happened, they ran out into the countryside for safety with the boys. I was in the factory where I work. I walked out and I was lucky. And they were lucky."

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