Sichuan Earthquake 2008

My friend Gao Li Qiang runs Tibetan Trekking Company out of Chengdu, Sichuan in China. I have been traveling with him in Western Sichuan (Eastern Tibet or Kham) for five years. We take high school students and expose them to the culture, landscape and people of this fabulous part of the world.

This year he’s had two blows to his business. First of all, the protests in many parts of Tibet and around the world for more autonomy for Tibetans in China shut down his tour business at least until after the Olympics in Beijing. The second blow came on May 12 with the massive earthquake in the foothills between Chengdu and the Tibetan plateau.

We were in contact with each other very soon after the earthquake and he let me know that he and his staff all survived. Later he wrote to say he was over his initial shock and had begun to look for ways he and his staff could be of help to the thousands of victims pouring out of the mountains onto the plains around Chengdu.

Here is his account along with some pictures he took.

Gao Li Qiang – Writing from Sichaun, June 4, 2008

As usual I was working in my office – R1614, a small room located on the 16th floor of Everest Hotel in Chengdu. 2 guides and one operator were across the aisle. There was nothing special about that afternoon, regular work of training, and sales…etc. Suddenly, the desk where I put my laptop began shaking. After several seconds my laptop started to jump up and down; it was like there were magic hands moving it. There was nothing in my head, but I realized danger was coming. I was standing up and yelling the names of my colleagues one by one. We must get out of the building as soon as we can – this is the only idea I had. When all of us gathered together close to the exit to the stairs, we found that we could not move anymore because the building, which we were in, was shaking so strongly that we could not even stand. It was like to take corsair when building was waving back and forth. We could even see gray sky through the windows

At this moment, I noticed we were not the only ones who were stranded on the 16th floor. There were about 15 people including us gathering at the door to the stairs. Because of the strong swaying from this building none of us dared to move. We even thought if there were too many people running together that might enhance the swaying the building to make the building collapse. One girl or maybe two were crying. One person said loudly “stop, stop, stop! No moving!” All of us were hand in hand trying to keep ourselves from falling down and I was telling my colleagues: “We’ll be fine, we’ll be fine”, even though I really did not know if we would survive or not. I had no idea how long it might last. One person suddenly yelled, “Run”! Then everyone started to run down to the ground from 16th floor.

On the first few floors on our way down, the stairs were clear. Nothing was on them. But then we found socks, broken heals, shoes and even shirts all over the stairway. Fortunately, all of us were running one by one down from 16th to the ground; there was no jostling and no one fell down. Only one young boy tried to overtake a female colleagues of mine but I stopped him and he did not push anymore. I clearly remember one sound when we were running down. I can’t forget it. It is the sound of “DE DE DE…” coming from a pair of high heel shoes worn by one of my female colleagues. She ran all the way down to the ground without hurting her feet or ankles and her high heel shoes were completely ok! The cadence of the sound from her high heel shoes when she was running was like a magic power directing us to the ground safely.

The big street in front of Everest hotel had already been filled up scared people. Almost everyone looked up toward to high buildings on both sides of this main street in Chengdu. I knew at least we were safe for the moment. And now we realized that we were the last group of people running out of this building.

Mobile phones did not work and we could not find any ground lines near us. We realized we had lost contact with our family, friends. After making sure that everyone of us was ok, I told my colleagues to go home to make sure their families were ok. I encouraged myself to go back to my office since there were important documents I should to take with me. I ran up the stairs we just came down. It was exhausting but did not dare to slow down. I stop for a few seconds on 10th floor because I wanted to save some energy in case the earthquake came back and I still wanted some energy to be able to run down again. I reached my office and picked up those files, then came back to ground safely. I felt better! Then I ran to the garage to get my car and I drove like crazy through the streets to reach my family as soon as I could.

The streets were full of people and vehicles. Traffic was so bad at that time and the radio did not give us any information of what was going on. There were still songs and useless news playing. After 30 or 40 minutes one radio station started telling us that an earthquake had just happened but it gave no information about where the epicenter was and nothing about how serious it was.

I drove through red lights, crossed the forbidden dual yellow lines…. Anyway I reached my family and took them to the outskirt of Chengdu, where there are no high building. The night of May 12th we stayed in our car listening to the radio. The news finally said it was a 7.8-degree earthquake in Sichuan and there were nearly 400 people who had lost their lives in Chengdu with a very few parts of this city damaged lightly. Two days later the buildings of the school where my mother had worked for over 35 years collapsed during one of the aftershocks. Fortunately no one was hurt because all of the students have been evacuated before it happened.

I thought we would be able to go back to work after few days but it turns out this was just the beginning; the worst was yet to come.

On the night of May 12th a lot of taxies went to Dujiang, the irrigation town next to the mountains, to help transport injured people to hospitals in Chengdu. More and more injured people were brought to Chengdu and the situation was getting worse. The epicenter was confirmed at Wenchuan but quite soon another very bad damaged place was discovered – Beichuan. And after a couple more hours Yingxiu, Qinchuan, Mianzu, Jiangyou, Hanwang… were also found to be very badly damaged also. Everything happened so suddenly.

Millions of people needed to be helped and hundreds of thousands people were buried under collapsed buildings; they needed food, water, medical supplies, tents, mattresses, blankets – they need everything for living.

I contacted some friends of mine and few guides who were available to assist me in doing something. We found that the number of people who need help is huge. The area damaged by the earthquake is enormous. I felt we were such a small group that we could only do a few things. The people we can help would be so few but we still felt we should so something.

Here is some of what we saw:

This is the road leading to Mianzu township. This is outskirt of the small town. There were many army trucks parking on both sides of the roads.

This is the first collapsed building I saw in Mianzu. 80% or even more buildings of Mianzu township will have to be tore down. The earthquake did not make them into rubble but the structure of those building is too unsafe.

This is the front of the first collapsed apartment block. We do not know how many casualties.

Two students walking by the rubble of houses. This is just few kilometers from Mianzu township.

We arrived in Guangji Township and saw one Business – room of China Mobile. This is a 7 story building; the ground floor is filled with the rest of the building.

This is the place where the local government is located. The roof of the building is gone and the building is dangerous. Local official all work in the blue tent. This is also the place we unloaded the goods we brought from Chengdu.

I went to talk to this refugee but he reacted very slowly.

A group soldier of the PLA are waiting as a big forklift takes trash away so they can try to find people who may be still buried in the rubble.

The “X” shape gap means the building is no longer useful. The giant hole at the center of this “X” type seems that it wanted to tell us something.

At one village, we found there is one house with its front door looking okay but when we turn around the rest of the house was totally gone.

There is nothing left but rubble. The villagers told me that they spent all their money to build a new house a few months ago; they just bought a new TV and a washing machine. Now there is nothing left.

This is the dinning table; they cook their food by the garlic field.

This is their “new house”. It is quite hot at noon. I went in to see what it was like but the hot air just kick me out. The temperature should be over 40 degrees C (104 F).

This is their harvested garlic beside the fallen house.

I can imagine that this was once a beautiful location. The home is surrounded by green trees with plenty of fresh air, but now there are only two doors left.

The villagers we met told me it may take 4 years or longer for them to recover.

This two story building looks ok but cannot be used anymore. The horrible fracture from its bottom right to the top makes it very unstable.

The refugees’ temporary place to sleep.

Earthquake has destroyed the water supply system. The local villagers have to get water delivered by the PLA.

This is one fall down door, we still can see its shape

It is like typical Chinese sign of two red lanterns hanging on the two side of the front door, this family might be rich before this strike from earthquake.

This wardrobe is still there – but who knows where the owner is?

Just one door still standing up, the blue & green tents of the background are the place where the villagers sleep now.

Even after such a terrible disaster the washing still gets done! I admire this lady very much.

An injured old man rests. He is surrounded by all that he has left now.

Here’s another one of the tough ladies I respect very much. This small workshop provided basic mechanical services to local villagers. The earthquake destroyed most of the shop; only some really old machine remain. In her eyes I did not see any sadness or anger – just awesome peace. She was working really hard and trying to save some parts of this machine.

The remains of a building.

This is a typical village home in the China countryside. The family slept on the second floor and first floor was for business. This family was rich and happy, but it’s all gone, taken away by the earthquake.

The market of Zundao, all down.

One street of Zundao County. Houses by the street had collapsed.

A lady was sitting there with her daughter who has a psychological problem. The old lady is quite worried about her daughter and was trying to find any help she could. She talked to us about her daughter but there was nothing I could do to help. The only thing I can do was to hear what she had to say. I truly wish she and her daughter will be able to make it through.

The remains of an old local alcohol factory.

A farmer was trying to find some stuff in his house.

Beyond the rubble are the mountains: the footprint of the earthquake are clearly visible on their steep slopes! Landslides have blocked the rivers and created lakes that could overflow and wash the dams away. This would create flash floods downstream.

Local villagers clean up the small streets in the village and try to get their life back in order. These two men are helped each other try to make their lives easier and better.

Though these people may gossip and they might even making loud noises when they chew their food, they are human beings like you and me. Look at them working hard to make the best of their terrible situation!

Beer is one of my favorite drinks, I never realized an empty bottle of beer could be used in this way. After May 12th it has become my “Alarm”. I erect them like this in the corner of my sleeping room. I’ll do this for a long time from now on. After I went to the areas destroyed by the earthquake, I understand we are not fast enough to run ahead of an earthquake. When we feel the earthquake it is already to late. Only luck & the Blessings of Buddha can save us!

I must say what we have suffered is nothing to compare with those who live in the places like Beichuan, Mianyang…etc, that were completely destroyed by the earthquake. We are so lucky; we have our family, I can use the Internet, I can drink beer, I can play Frisbee with my wife in the yard in front of Ikea.

I hope Buddha bless us forever.