Aftershocks and other earthquake experiences
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.
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…
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.
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.