Sichuan earthquake: Memories of 5.12
To commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, we're running a series of features on the quake and the stories of devastation and recovery that followed. As the extent of the disaster unfolded, the one question on the minds of everybody watching from near and afar was, "How do we help?" Volunteers organized collections, fundraising events, trucks of supplies. As the first major widespread disaster to be televised nationally in China, the quake inspired an unprecedented show of donations and volunteering among citizens. In this, our final quake-commemoration post, we share some of the stories of those who, with varying degrees of success, lent their aid.
These stories are all excerpted from CHENGDOO citylife, issue 13 ("Aftermath"), a full PDF of which is available as a free download.
"In the beginning, I did not know it is so serious. On the 13th of May, I woke up and watched TV and realized I had wasted 21 hours to rescue those people"
Heather Zhao, then a nurse at Parkway Health
We Came to Rescue You
Israeli students Eliran Dobzinski and Nisan Hasan heard their compatriots were in trouble and managed to get in and out of the quake zone before the military had closed off the roads. Photo courtesy Dobzinski.
Eliran I carried a bag with two mattresses, two sleeping bags, two tents, a boiler, and cooking stuff, and [instant noodles], a lot, so we were prepared to survive at least a week with two bags. I had these crazy [army] meals that I got from one of my friends. You eat a tablet, two tablets it's like a meal, and we had like 16, 17.
In the night when we slept in the tent, there were aftershocks. And then you know you wake up in the morning, there was an earthquake. We didn't say anything. But we thought about it—there was an earthquake in the evening, and we're gonna climb up there? And then the villagers told us there is no way to get in. So we felt useless—what are we gonna do, we're just gonna sit here all day long; we're not gonna do anything? We're gonna sit here and wait? That sounds stupid. We cannot be there and not do anything. Like what the fuck are we gonna do here? We're gonna stay here a day, two days, we're gonna wait for them for a week?
Nisan When we found the girls, I collapsed 10 minutes before; I just had no power, no energy to continue. But when we saw them, when we saw the girl with the broken jaw and found out she didn't eat or drink we knew we had to get her out, so you forget yourself in a way.
Without the Chinese we wouldn't get the girls out, no way. We had to carry one of them. The [villagers'] houses had just collapsed, and they did everything just to help us. That was amazing. Didn't want money, didn't want anything.
We got to the ambulance, and the girl with the broken jaw just didn't wanna let go of the Chinese guy. They were crying, both of them. I almost cried. She couldn't speak any Chinese, couldn't speak any English, but he helped her so much that she kinda felt attached to him.
She wanted to offer him money, and I told her don't do it because he'll never take it. And she did, he didn't take it, and then she started crying, started crying really hard, and for 10 minutes, the ambulance just waited for them to stop crying.
Eliran One of the girls, her father is a really powerful man. He just called everybody that he knows, and he knows somebody that works with people that works here. So from Israel they got us the cars, and they got a really special driver. They came and picked us up with a Mercedes, a brand new one. It was like an SUV. And this driver was a local guy, so he knew the roads and the shortcuts, he knew everything. The [expressway] was closed. [But] the car had a government card so they can go everywhere they want.
When I ran [to the girls, one] just looked at me. I said, 'Hello,' in Hebrew. 'We came to rescue you!' She couldn't speak for two minutes, and then she was like, 'OK, the insurance sent something,' and I told her, 'I'm sorry but we're not from the government, we're not from the insurance, we're just two students that came. We heard there's people in trouble—we came to rescue you, that's all. We didn't know anything; we're just two students, we want to help. That's all.'
>>Israelis Eliran Dobzinski, then 24, and Nisan Hasan, then 25, were full-time students at Chengdu University when the quake struck. On the evening of May 12, they heard from other Israelis in Chengdu that two compatriots had been traveling in Hongkou when the quake struck. The next morning, Dobzinski, a Krav Maga expert, and Hasan, who was familiar with Hongkou, set out to find the women, whom they had never met. Within 36 hours, they had delivered the women—one of whom had suffered a broken jaw and the other severed fingers—to the hospital in Chengdu. The women returned to Israel shortly thereafter.
Knocking on the Dragon's Gate
Photo by Leo Chen.
"Walked up Yingchang Gou in Pengzhou. Back at base camp. Very organised all things considered. Army here in force now and road being worked on. Not much left standing. Survivors walking wounded or out by air. Awaiting information on where to go next."
via SMS, May 16, 9:47:39
"We are back at our base camp in Longmenshan. Road up Huilong Gou very badly damaged by landslides. Walking difficult and a little dangerous; falling rocks and unstable ground in places. No-one has walked in very far, although helicopters have dropped supplies. Plan to start heading in early tomorrow morning."
via SMS, May 16, 20:19:26
"Back out at base camp – very long day, spent 15 hours walking ~60km and ~1800m of ascent, mostly no path at all in a dense forest, heavy loads and lot of landslides. Rescued 8 people and 1 dog though. Even saw recent panda shit, so at least one wild panda survived! We're coming back to Chengdu tonight ... Very difficult to send messages."
via SMS, May 18, 00:51:53
>>The month before the quake we met and interviewed Matt Ryan of Dragon Expeditions, a small, Chengdu-based outdoor-tours company, and asked why he would want to spend his spare time exploring caves and climbing rocks. The day after the quake, we received a message saying that some of the Dragon Expeditions team was going on a rescue mission with the Chinese Mountain Rescue Team, organized by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The team of 22 set off toward Pengzhou aiming for the areas inaccessible to the army.
Working in favor of the team was the fact that this was where Dragon Expeditions regularly operated tours and that Ryan himself has considerable rescue experience, including in Turkey after the 1999, 7.6-magnitude earthquake. "I could hardly sit in Chengdu and watch the pictures knowing I could be helping," said Ryan. "After this quake it was pretty clear we could do something to help, but didn't want to get in the way. This was still a worry even with skills, experience, and government blessing. The military has 100,000+ people mobilized and was clearly doing a very good job."
Having been told by villagers along the way that there were people alive in the mountains with no way out, the team called out for hours until they received a response and were able to make a path to the eight stranded people and dog. "As soon as they realized that there was a route down the mountain they set off running down the path that we had spent the day clearing," Ryan recalled.
Doing Something Useful
Volunteers sorted boxes of supplies that were sent in from all over the country. The Chengdu Bookworm acted as a base for Sichuan Quake Relief, an organization that formed spontaneously and organically by an international group of Chengdu-based volunteers after the earthquake. In the weeks following the quake, SQR organized dozens of trucks filled with food, water, and other essentials, and they continue relief efforts to this day. Photo by Julien Rideller.
"In the first few days after the quake, I was so excited about going out and 'doing something useful': volunteering my time and my sweat, possibly risking my life, not getting any sleep, etc. So I thought that I was the luckiest person in the world when I got the opportunity to go as a Red Cross volunteer into Ground Zero.
"My dad and I arrived at 9 a.m., 16 May. Unfortunately, the Red Cross was not quite as ready as we were, and I think that the whole group left Chengdu around 1 p.m., with a lot of waiting around before and after. Around 4 p.m. we reached a government checkpoint—all non-official vehicles were prohibited from going beyond—where more waiting around ensued while the leaders of our mission re-organized so that we would be allowed through.
"After driving for maybe 10 minutes, the whole caravan of about seven or eight cars and vans pulled over again. This time, the wait was three hours. The aftershocks had not stopped since the quake on the 12th, and conditions in Qingping Village—about 20 km from Hanwang Town and at this point accessible only by foot—were too dangerous for us to continue. So we sat by the side of the road, awaiting orders from Red Cross command.
"Finally, around 8 p.m., it was decided that it was too late for us to actually go into Qingping, so we camped out at a military-supply post. The quake victims, whom we were supposed to help, brought us food! They had so little to give, and yet they were offering it all to us!
"We slept that night in those blue tents emblazoned with the words 'anti-earthquake disaster relief' until 3 a.m., when our tent of all females was woken up and ordered onto the vehicles. Without any explanation, we were whisked out of Hanwang and into Deyang, where we waited for two hours for the drivers to go back and pick up the rest of the stranded quake victims—er, volunteers.
"In the morning, another aftershock caused a landslide in Qingping, burying and killing 200 more. Had we left on time, had organizational and bureaucratic issues not kept us waiting for three hours on the side of the road— might we have been able to help at least some of those 200?"
>>Volunteer Eileen Guo was an international student at Sichuan University last May. After this volunteer attempt, she joined groups of unofficial volunteers making supplies deliveries to various areas. She has since relocated back to the U.S. to start university and, as a result of her volunteer experiences in Sichuan, joined a student group promoting civil-military relations.