DUJIANGYAN, China - The mothers and fathers come to the wreckage of Juyuan Middle School every day to grieve, to rage, and to try to ensure that justice comes for the hundreds of students who were killed in the earthquake on May 12.

Survivors said the concrete school seemed to crumble within moments of the quake. All the apartment buildings surrounding the school still stand.

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Parents are demanding answers, loudly and without restraint. On Friday, more than a hundred of them confronted local education officials in a heated meeting in a building adjacent to the school's outdoor basketball court.

One father shouted, "They did not die from a natural disaster. They died from a human disaster!"

The father of another asked, "How can we trust the government again?"

On the opposite side of the schoolyard, more parents gathered to fill out paperwork and add their names to a formal petition and lawsuit. They are seeking punishment for those responsible.

These overt acts of protest are unusual in China; they reflect the groundswell of anger over the large number of schools that collapsed during the earthquake. In another town in Sichuan province, 100 parents marched in protest to a government office.

One official estimate has placed the number of schoolchildren who were killed at 9,000. As many as 7,000 of them were children without siblings, according to a report this weekend by the state-run Xinhua news agency, a toll that is doubly tragic because of China's one-child policy.

As of yesterday, the total death toll had risen to 69,016, with 20,000 missing.

Yesterday, authorities were searching for a military helicopter that crashed Saturday near Wenchaun as its five crew ferried 14 people injured in the quake. Officials were also evacuating the last of the 200,000 people at risk from the rising waters of a lake formed by a landslide after the quake.

At the Juyuan site, relatives have strung protest banners outside a stairwell, the only part of the 18-room, four-story school that remains. The black characters of one banner call for punishment "to the murderers who caused the collapse."

A second says: "Repay the blood debt" for this "tofu project" - a reference to poorly built public projects.

Police mill around but do not pull down the banners or silence the parents.

Across the earthquake zone, the destruction of so many schools is raising troubling questions about whether corruption compromised the quality of buildings. At Juyuan Middle School, a quarter of the 900 students perished.

A quality expert with an investigative team under the Ministry of Construction confirmed the parents' worst fears, concluding that steel reinforcement rods in the concrete were too thin, Xinhua reported Friday.

The school site has become a memorial with steady numbers of people - not just relatives but others from the region and beyond - coming to pay their respects. They take photos with their cell phones and videotape the scene, pausing to listen to parents.

The mother of a 16-year-old victim carries in her purse a letter her daughter wrote April 13. In precise block characters, the girl apologized for her poor performance in school and pledged to do better. She said she would rise from 10th in her class to at least eighth. If she didn't do better, the girl said, her mother could punish her and she wouldn't complain.

The woman, Peng Lan, showed the note to a group of doctors from Shanghai, who were helping at a hospital in Chengdu, the nearby capital of Sichuan province. They had journeyed an hour to see for themselves what had happened to the Juyuan school. One doctor took a picture of the letter with his phone.

"I have a daughter, too," said Wang Shuyun, an intensive-care doctor who was caring for three survivors from Juyuan at the Chengdu hospital. "I want to tell her about this."

The tall pile of concrete and brick debris stands like a burial mound. Nine students remain entombed in the rubble.

Relatives of victims have left paper funeral wreaths and offerings of incense, paper money, and food - oranges, bread, even bowls of instant noodles. Under a row of trees, mourners have strung tributes on long, thin pieces of paper that flutter like flags in a breeze. Visitors pause to add messages and sign their names.

Classes were still in session when the 7.9-magnitude quake hit at 2:28 p.m. Mementoes of those young lives - backpacks, a lunch tin, pencil cases - are strewn in the dusty debris. Among the papers is an English work sheet with this perfect sentence: "Yao Ming is one of the most famous basketball players in China."

One of the survivors of the collapse, Shi Yao, 15, came to the site Friday to add her name to the protest petition and lawsuit. She was in a classroom on the top floor when the building started to shake.

"I just stood there, then I hid under the table," Shi said. "The building just collapsed in minutes."

Shi was trapped for five hours. "I was not scared. My classmates, we just encouraged each other, talked to each other."

As she spoke, people surrounded her and took pictures with their cell phones. Asked why she signed the petition, she said, "I feel so sad for the students and teachers."

Dujiangyan is a small city, 30 miles northwest of Chengdu. Many of the parents are farmers or laborers. They abided by the government's rule of having only one child, which is strictly enforced in this province of more than 80 million.

The deaths of those children have stirred new worries for parents about their own futures. In China, children customarily care for their parents in old age.

The government said it would relax its one-child policy for families who lost children in the quake, allowing them to have others. But many parents of the middle school students are in their 30s or older and say it is too late to start over.

"People our age, it's like we're hanging in the middle of the sky," said Peng Lan, the mother of the girl who wrote the letter.

Two other mothers clutched big photos of their sons.

Zhong Qun's 16-year-old son was pulled alive from the wreckage 11 hours after the earthquake. "I was holding him. I was so happy. I thought there was hope," Zhong said. The boy was rushed to the hospital. He died the next day.

Her friend, Tang Sili, could see her son buried halfway in the debris. "I called his name," she said. "I could see his mouth opening and him saying something. I could see him. But he became weaker and weaker."

Rescuers freed his lifeless body the next afternoon.

"You can't imagine the feeling," Zhong said, "of watching my son die."

Coming Tomorrow

Jennifer Lin writes about the Philadelphia Orchestra's gala concert in Beijing honoring the 35th anniversary of its history-making visit to China.EndText

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.