China says quake school toll over 19,000

BEIJING (Reuters) - Schools that collapsed during China’s May 12 earthquake killed more than 19,000 people, nearly a quarter of the total deaths, an official said on Friday, giving the first government estimate.

The deaths of children, many buried under ruins of shoddily built classrooms while nearby buildings withstood the tremors, has been the most controversial aspect of the disaster.

The 7.9 magnitude quake killed more than 80,000 people and horrified China but spurred both government and private individuals into a largely effective and widely praised response.

Millions left homeless in Sichuan and Gansu provinces now face a bitter winter in thin tents, prefab housing and makeshift shelters, adding concern over basic necessities to the grief.

A second local official at the heart of the quake zone killed himself this week, state media said, in a sign of the emotional toll.

Poignant images of satchels, toys and tiny desks scattered among twisted piles of concrete and weak steel drove home the extent of a devastation worsened by the timing of the tremor, which hit while children were at school.

Wei Hong, vice governor of Sichuan province, said the school toll was still provisional, and the government had not finished counting. He did not say whether the total was only children, or also included the many teachers killed with their pupils.

After the earthquake, Beijing rapidly clamped down on reporting of poorly built schools and has been trying to silence grieved parents looking for redress in the court system by paying compensation instead.

Chinese officials had previously refused to give a toll of those who died in the schools.

A Reuters survey of news reports of collapsed schools had previously put the toll from collapsed schools below 10,000.

Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Nick Macfie