Roof collapse at gym in China kills at least 11

Usman Deen
Usman Deen

Global Courant

Anger rose in China Monday after the collapse of the roof of a high school gym near the Siberian border a day earlier, killing at least 10 members of the school’s trophy-winning girls’ volleyball team practicing inside, as well as a coach.

School safety has long been an emotional issue in China. The collapse of 7,000 classrooms during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed as many as 10,000 schoolchildren, sparked a national outcry. Sloppy initial construction of schools, widely described as “tofu” buildings, was widely held responsible for the heavy loss of children at the time.

On Sunday, the official Xinhua news agency said, the roof collapsed in Qiqihar in Heilongjiang province because builders from an adjacent complex piled building materials on the roof of the gym, in violation of regulations.

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When it rained on Sunday, the improperly stored material — a coarse powder mixed with water to make insulation plaster — absorbed so much water that the roof collapsed from the extra weight, Xinhua reported. According to Xinhua, the local police have detained the head of the construction contractor responsible for the construction of the adjacent educational complex.

People gathered at the front door of the school on Monday to lay flowers and mourn.

The official explanation differed from a long-standing concern about schools in China: whether they are shoddily built.

Suspicions of flawed initial construction in Qiqihar were evident in posts on Chinese social media on Monday. “Please explore the tofu dregs construction project!” said an Internet user who identified herself as the aunt of one of the victims.

The collapse of many schools during the Sichuan earthquake, which occurred three months before the start of the Beijing Olympics, prompted the Ministry of Education to issue regulations in 2009 requiring state and local security checks.

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The gym that collapsed on Sunday was built in 1997, local media reported. The Qiqihar government had begun a school inspection program four months ago, but it was not immediately clear whether the collapsed high school gymnasium had been checked before it collapsed.

Social media users also complained that police in Qiqihar immediately rallied the parents to prevent them from organizing protests, but shared little information about their daughters, following a pattern of efforts by the Chinese government to suppress information after disasters. In Sichuan, local police allowed protests in 2008 in the days following the earthquake, but later struck.

Qiqihar, the last major city in China before reaching Mohe City, China’s northernmost city, briefly experienced an unlikely construction boom in 2016 and 2017. The city built a high-speed rail station and dozens of modern residential towers and office buildings that contrasted with the city’s older, Russian-influenced architecture.

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But even as developers rushed to build new buildings, Qiqihar’s residents moved elsewhere, undermining demand for the new spaces. Qiqihar lost a quarter of its population between 2011 and 2020, shrinking to 4 million people, city data shows. That exodus was one of the most serious examples of the widespread depopulation of China’s northeast corner. Young families in particular left in search of better opportunities in less chilly cities further south.

The region has set records for its frigid temperatures. Indoor sports such as volleyball are popular during the long winters.

The girls’ volleyball team that lost the most members on Sunday is a point of local pride. His many hours of practice recently led him to second place in the championship from Heilongjiang, a sprawling province larger than California.

Siyi Zhao contributed research from Seoul.

Roof collapse at gym in China kills at least 11

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