Reduced to a heap of broken masonry and smouldering fires by the quake in Christchurch, it was home to one of many small English-language schools dotted around the picturesque city.
“How was this allowed to happen?” said Indian student Jeewan, still raw with anger after watching rescuers abandon the search of his old school.
“When they inspected the building after the last earthquake, why didn’t they realise?”
A young Japanese student, wrapped in a blanket and her head covered by a woollen cap, waited outside the wreckage for news of her fellow students still trapped inside, including at least 11 other Japanese.
“It’s very difficult,” she said, but she was too upset to continue and did not give her name. She spent the night, keeping vigil in a nearby park, close to triage tents that were treating survivors.
It was unclear how many others were trapped inside the building. But as evening approached on Wednesday, more than 24 hours after the 6.3-magnitude quake, it became clear none of them was likely to re-emerge.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” Indian student Jeewan said, shaking his head in grief and anger as rescue teams began to abandon the site where his friend was buried.
Safe, cheap, beautiful
Rescuers moved on to other buildings toppled by New Zealand’s most deadly natural disaster for 80 years, deeming it too dangerous to work any longer among the fiery mangle of concrete.
Asian students flock to New Zealand every year to learn English because it is safe, cheap and breathtakingly beautiful – a reputation hardly dented five months ago when Christchurch survived an even stronger tremor without a single death.
Even for the many who come from Japan, one of the world’s most quake-prone countries, the prospect of finding themselves in harm’s way in the “Garden City” must have seemed remote.
Hiroshi Inagaki, who helps arrange study trips abroad for the ECC Overseas Study Centre, told Reuters in Tokyo that students and their parents were also attracted by New Zealand’s relaxed and friendly culture.
“It’s relatively cheap, has natural beauty, people are nice, it’s safe and there isn’t much time difference so they can keep in touch with their families easily,” he said.
Education for foreigners is big business in New Zealand, which earned an estimated $1.9bn a year from about 72 000 overseas students in 2010, including those attending universities and smaller private establishments.
Kento Okuda, a 19-year-old Japanese student, was one of the students who were rescued from under the wreckage.
“I was surrounded by darkness, unable to move with my right leg caught between something,” he told Japan’s Asahi newspaper.
“They had to amputate my leg to rescue me but it was something I had to accept. I want everyone else to be rescued as well.”
Rescue specialists from Japan, the United States, Britain, and Taiwan were en route to New Zealand to help with the search, with those from neighbouring Australia already on the streets.
Despite the grief and frustration in Christchurch, the students’ relatives back home kept praying for a miracle.
– Are you there or do you have family there? Tell us your stories, send us your pictures