Aftershocks and other earthquake experiences

May 28, 2008

1. Departure

May 12, 2:28 pm, almost all my Reuters Beijing colleagues saw the office TV sets shaking. Those TV sets had often shown the news but it was the first time they themselves had been the news. Within a few seconds, we realized it was an earthquake. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake had hit Sichuan province. Sichuan! My home. About ten minutes later, I was driving my car to Beijing airport. At that moment, I did not even know that there was a place on this earth called Wenchuan. Where was I going? What time could I leave? Fortunately, I was the first Reuters journalist to arrive at the airport and unfortunately I was the last to leave as I chose to fly to Chengdu and its airport was closed. I had almost no idea how serious the situation there was but wisely as it turned out took two instant DC/AC power inverters which meant I could work normally in the firs few days when the whole area was completely out of power.

2. In the field

On afternoon of May 13, after 6 hours of driving from Chongqing, the first earthquake-hit area I reached was Hanwang Town of Mianzhu. I was one of the first to arrive there. It later transpired that because the epicenter had been Wenchuan everyone assumed it would be worst hit when in fact towns in the surrounding area suffered more disastrously. It was like the end of the world with gloomy skies and soft drizzle. Terrified survivors told me Hanwang Dongqi Middle school had been horribly damaged so I headed there. It was unnaturally silent, the bodies of at least 20 students covered with plastic bags lay in a row on the ground. A mother gently removed the coverings trying to find her own child. Policemen surrounded the scene and I dared not approach but with a long lens I could see rain and tears merged on her face. Sometime later a couple found the body of their child and were just overcome with grief.  I shot a single frame and went and hugged them but then an aftershock struck which made the damaged buildings ‘peng peng’, like the King of Terrors clamouring against which humans were just so small and weak. The rain became heavier, the mourning became louder and the sky became darker. There was a choking smell of death. I could not believe that just that morning I had been in Beijing, a city with a population of 15 million.

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3. Beichuan

On May 15 I set off for Beichuan, utilising all available modes of transportation - jeeps, cars and my own legs. I arrived 5 hours later as a mass military rescue team also reached the spot. It was a valley of death. A  landslide had almost buried the whole of the old district while the new part was just rubble with fires flickering here and there. Once in a while there would be a shout ”someone here” as a survivor was located beneath the debris. At one collapsed kindergarten, I saw dozens of cute little faces almost untouched except for the dried blood rimming their eyes and mouths while the rest of their bodies were stuck beneath heavy rocks and concrete. The tears in my eyes made it almost impossible to shoot pictures and I had constantly to remind myself that I needed to show this tragedy to the world in a way that was not too general but not too brutal. What a painful feeling, I saw everything I could not let my camera see as I walked and walked among the bodies of victims looking for pictures… I saw a butterfly fluttering between pretty shoes on the feet of a young girl which stuck from the rubble. As I pressed the shutter I mourned for this young soul and moved away to leave her be.  The next day, I saw a mother searching in the rubble for her daughter; she sobbed as she told me she had forced her 4-year-old daughter to go to school that day although she said she felt unwell. She kept saying, “I killed my own daugher”, and begged me not to shoot pictures of her…

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4. Death is right at your back

With the death toll in Beichuan soaring, I felt obliged to continue my reporting there in case quake lakes burst or epidemics started. On May 17 for the first time in my life I felt the approach of death as I and 10,000 people ran for our lives. Around 2:55pm, a helicopter, hovering overhead reported that a nearby dam was about to burst and all military and rescue teams were ordered to retreat. All of a sudden everyone was running for their lives in complete terror – including me.

The day before I had imparted the details of my savings and investments to my editor in Beijing – just in case. In the circumstances I hadn’t wanted to worry my parents and which of us doesn’t want our parents to think we can take care of ourselves? But after hundreds of aftershocks, cracking dams, continuous landslides, with the threat of plague and a possible nuclear leak, I had felt it was maybe time to  hedge my bets a bit.

The stampede started downtown and ended on top of a nearby mountain 3 kilometers away. After running madly for 5-minutes, I realised what I was doing and turned back to record the scene with my cameras and called it in to the Reuters Beijing office. 

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5. Back to Beijing

In 12 days I lost 5kg in weight and brought back sadness and nightmares to Beijing.

On May 24, as I boarded the flight back to Beijing from Chengdu, I met a senior photographer from a competiting agency, who said, “your pictures are very nice”. In Beijing we almost never talked and it was the first time that he had praised me face to face. While it is good to get compliments deep inside I still feel sad. I am Chinese born in Sichuan; after spending days in the ruins, keeping a lid on my emotions, shooting pictures, describing the scenes for my text colleagues in Beijing, helping to rescue survivors and fleeing for my own life, my sense of identity, my feelings and my reactions are complicated…

One thing I do know is that we are lucky – because we are still alive.

The first chapter coverage of this story is gone, things need to move on and I will try my best to play my part in it all.

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19 comments

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Thank you for your report and for the photos from the field. Living in a country prone to seismic event I fully share your emotions!

Jason Lee, I don’t know what I could say in response to your post. Really…

It’s deep, reflective and honest and it moved me as I read it. It’s almost as if your pictures are artistic expressions of human suffering as seen after the quake.

I don’t want to praise you on behalf of other people’s misfortunes but you know what? It’s as though in this career called journalism one cannot survive or be without thriving on other people’s misfortunes. It’s a bitter-sweet pill for me.

I know you probably need time to recover from it all but I can’t help but ask, how do you maintain yourself under such conditions? Its hard, terrifying and brings up alot of issues like you said. Is it that in the heat of the moment you don’t think, you act then it catches up with you later or you just deal with it as it comes?

I send my condolences to the People of the Republic of China. May you find strength to pick up the pieces.

Best regards,

Diana.

Posted by Diana Ngila | Report as abusive

Absolutely heartbreaking photos.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

Thank You,
This has to be one of the saddest things that have happened to this country. My Thoughts go out to the families. I am a fellow photographer and i couldn’t imagine having to take this photos and the emotions that follow, you truly are a brave soul. i can only hope that in the future this isn’t prone to happen again..or perhaps some of the things can be avoided..
Good luck.

Thank you for writing your story. Your acts courage reaffirm my dream of becoming a journalist one day.

Posted by Masato | Report as abusive

Outstanding reporting in the most difficult circumstances I can imagine– thanks for the photos and words that bring this tragic story to the rest of the world, and thanks for the new openness that allows the story to be told with such clarity. Compassionate people from around the world have been deeply saddened by the fact that this event seemed to affect so many children and most feel so powerless to help. Like so many others, I’ve sent money to relief organizations, but what else can we do? Those of use that live on the west coast of the U.S. know that this situation could just as easily happen here, and we send aid knowing that if the situation was reversed, the people of China would do the same– we’re all riding on this big blue marble together; help our brothers and sisters in China now when they need it the most. Thanks again Mr. Lee, and keep up the good work!

Thank you for a truly revealing view of the disaster. You photographs and experiences are much more telling than those I had seen thus far. Keep up the excellent work, and thank you for helping others to see what misfortunes are being suffered, that we may better understand and/or help.

Posted by Brandon Boscia | Report as abusive

[...] 2008 | # | Tags: china, earthquake, photography, reuters A rather harrowing blog post from a Reuters photographer working in China. NSFC. [...]

Jason, that picture of the butterfly near the little girl’s body had me in tears. In Hong Kong, we believe that butterflies and moths carry the soul of the deceased. It is as if the soul of the little girl is still waiting for her parents to pick her up. I hope there is justice and all those corrupted officials get arrested!

Posted by Wei | Report as abusive

My utmost respect. Good job, thought bittersweet.

Jason, I’m in awe. I’m also concerned. I’ve shot a few fires and accident scenes and found it hard to deal with the human loss. Please, I hope you find a way to acknowledge your grief, and consider getting some counseling. You’ve been through a lot. Thanks for hanging on to your humanity in the midst of doing your job.

Posted by Gary Whitehouse | Report as abusive

Outstanding photojournalism. I was captivated throughout your report. I’m certain the experience will have a profound impact on the way you look at life. Very humbling.

2 Chronicles 7:14… and, All the world must Pray while He may be found. This is just the beginning. Time is running out. Don’t be blind or angry any longer. Choose this day whom\what you will serve. All will eventually believe the One true God of all creation. Pray. Forgive. Have Mercy. Amen.

Posted by Dr. Jones | Report as abusive

Go back to Sichuan on May 30 …

Posted by jason lee | Report as abusive

Thank you for shearing your thoughts with your pictures! This blog offers much more then usual pictures with statistical numbers of the disaster. And you are right, compliment about great pictures does sound strange. You did a good work.
B5

Posted by B5 | Report as abusive

dear jason,
really sad read your journal…
feel like i was there too..all this was God’s fate.
I send my condolences to the People of the Republic of China

Dear Jason:
I had read your journal, and now I feel so sad coz I can understand your feelings… as you said Sinchuan means more than a news; means your family, your own life and the most important thing your own history.
I want to thank you this description, that makes us to understand the natures big power. I can’t go without tell you that I’m proud of you… you have a great character, that served to be strong and to write all this for make us (the readers) understood the things better, without any gag.
Thanks so much!!!

PS. I’ll make a pray to all your people…

Posted by Desiré | Report as abusive

Your photos truly remind one of the adage that a picture paints a thousand words and clearly convey feelings, thoughts and meanings that even real time television can not match. Let’s hope life will move on, just as you had said, with peace and tranquility.

Posted by John Chin | Report as abusive

Dear Jason,

We are a non-profit making magazine in HK wishing to purchase some of your Sichuan earthquake photos, how should we proceed?

Cheers,
Hung

Posted by Hung Hing | Report as abusive

[...] También os dejo un artículo del mismo reportero sobre el terremoto del mes de Mayo en China. [...]

The pictures are so heartbreaking, especially the face of the girl stuck beneath the concrete. I cannot imagine the terror, pain and horrow that these young and very cute souls went through.

Posted by aRLENE | Report as abusive

[...] post dá link para o blog de fotógrafos da Reuters. E o Paulo Munhoz destaca fotos de Jason Lee, que clicou a escola de [...]