DUJIANGYAN, China: They came hugging framed photographs and dog-eared achievement awards, placing them on the spot where their sons and daughters died under heaps of broken concrete. The men set off fireworks to chase away evil spirits as wads of paper money smoldered amid the rubble.
Then the loudspeaker began playing a funereal dirge and all at once the women doubled over in agony, a chorus of 100 mothers wailing over the loss of an only child. The husbands wept in silence, paralyzed by the storm of emotion.
"We worked so hard to raise you and then you left us so suddenly," a woman screamed, pounding the ruins of the Juyuan Middle School with her fists. "How could you leave us to grow old alone?"
But what began Tuesday morning as an unofficial gathering of bereaved parents quickly gave way to unbridled fury. One of the fathers, a quarry worker named Liu Lifu, grabbed the microphone and began calling for justice. His 15-year-old daughter, Liu Li, had died along with her entire class during a biology lesson.
"We strongly demand that the government severely punish the killers who caused the collapse of the school building," he shouted. "Please, everyone sign the petition so we can find out the truth."
The crowd grew more agitated. Some parents talked about how local officials knew for years that the building was unsafe but refused to take action. Others recalled that two hours had passed before rescue workers showed up; even then, they stopped working at 10 p.m. the night of the earthquake and only resumed their search at 9 a.m. the next day. In the end, more than 200 bodies were recovered.
"The people responsible for this should be brought here and have a bullet put in their head," said Luo Guanmin, a farmer who was cradling a photo of her 16-year-old daughter, Luo Dan.
In recent days, such raw public outbursts have been taking place across northern Sichuan Province as grieving parents agitate for investigations into why so many school buildings fell during the May 12 earthquake, killing as many as 10,000 children.
On Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of parents whose children died at the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu staged an impromptu rally, heaving insults on local officials. They surrounded one woman, screaming and yelling in her face until she fainted. Another official fell to his knees in an attempt to stop the parents as they began marching toward Chengdu, 75 kilometers, or 45 miles, away. Later, as the crowd surged into the hundreds, the protestors clashed with the police, leaving several parents bleeding and quaking with emotion.
As the official Chinese media continue to focus on the military's heroism and the nation's outpouring of generosity, a surge of anger is building among parents whose grief is overpowering the fear that often keeps ordinary citizens from challenging the government. In the first few days after the earthquake struck, the press freely reported on accusations of shoddy school construction. Within a week, however, the censors had gained the upper hand.
But in the past few days, articles about parents demanding accountability have begun to reappear. Late last week, Caijing, a business journal whose investigations often challenge the status quo, ran an editorial saying that inquiries should not be delayed. Xinhua, the official news agency, reminded readers Monday that it, too, supported a speedy response to the demands of grief-stricken parents.
The shift suggests that the authorities in Beijing may recognize the peril of ignoring public opinion. On Monday, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, Wang Xuming, promised a reassessment of school buildings in quake zones, adding that those responsible for cutting corners on school construction would be "severely punished." In recent days, local officials across Sichuan have also bowed to the pressure.
In Beichuan, officials announced an investigation into the collapse of a middle school there that killed 1,300 children; reached by phone Tuesday, two provincial officials in Chengdu vowed a vigorous response, although they suggested that full-scale investigations should take a back seat to the needs of survivors.
"We are not officially investigating the quality problems in school buildings but we definitely will, after we finish the temporary lodging for refugees," said Tian Liya, the party secretary of the Sichuan Construction Bureau's emergency department.
Gauging from the outbursts of recent days, any delay will only embolden infuriated parents. In their confrontation with Communist Party officials Saturday, the parents encircled the vice secretary of the Mianzhu city government and called her a liar for her report on the destruction of the Fuxin school that failed to mention that 127 students had been killed.
"Why can't you do the right things for us?" they shouted. "Why do you cheat us?" For the next 20 minutes they yelled and screamed in her face until she passed out and had to be carried away by an aid.
The next day, the parents directed their ire at Jiang Guohua, the party boss of Mianzhu. When his answers proved unsatisfying, they began their march to Chengdu. Jiang dropped to the ground several times and begged them to stop.
"Please believe the Mianzhu Party committee can resolve the issue," he said. They kept walking.
Three hours later, the police tried to intervene. During the ensuing struggle, the broken glass from the pictures of dead children left several parents bleeding. After a tense standoff, the marchers agreed to board government buses that brought them to Deyang, the county seat. There, they met with the vice mayor, who promised he would start an investigation the following day.
"I hope you can be free from this mood of sadness," Zhang Jinming, the vice mayor, said before sending them away. "The government will make a research team and give you satisfying results."
The parents who lost their children at Juyuan Middle School say they have yet to hear from Dujiangyan officials. A few parents said they had been approached by teachers and told they would be well compensated for their loss - about $4,500 per child - if they would stop their increasingly vociferous public campaign.
"We don't want their money; we just want this corruption to end," said Luo, the farmer, as others nodded in agreement. Many parents said they felt insulted that no one from the school or the government had come to offer their condolences.
The only official presence at the gathering Tuesday was a pair of tanker trucks full of disinfectant whose arrival coincided with the start of the ceremony. As the parents began lighting candles and incense, a worker directed his hose at the mountain of rubble. The sting of bleach drifted over the crowd. Then, perhaps sensing the potential for confrontation, the workers drove away.
The parents were told to group themselves according their children's classes, and as they lined up, they numbly exchanged stories of loss.
"When they pulled my boy out he kept begging for water but then he died," said Wang Chaoping, holding a passport-sized photo of his 16-year-son, Wang Tinghai. "He wasn't the best student, but he loved sports."
Another mother thrust a picture of her twin daughters into the circle. "They were such good girls," said the woman, Zhao Deqin, weeping. "On weekends, they only wanted to cook and clean and help make my life easier."
The parents whose children attended Juyuan were mostly farmers and factory workers, and the harshness of their lives, and their loss, was etched in their faces. Many, like Li Ping, 43, said they had lived frugally in order to pay obligatory fees for meals and a bed in the dormitory, which withstood the quake with nary a crack.
"I put all my hope in my one child," said Li, who been unable to work because of chronic liver disease. "They were supposed to support us in old age."
He started to well up but then stopped himself.
"We're not asking the government for money," he said. "We just want them to tell us why they died."