In misty light I arrived at Chongqing Airport with my TV colleague Royston. We drove straight toward Dujiangyan, with rain spitting gloomily and the air damply hazing my breath. The city seemed as though the Big Bang had just happened, everything had stopped. The crying and sirens all around made me dizzy and I cannot really remember how I arrived at the ruins of what had once been a school, with its 900 pupils buried in the rubble. A rescue team was desperately looking for anybody still alive, while I stood on the mountain of dust and the dead, shooting pictures. The sound of the shutter seemed to me to be like death itself scratching away.
2. On the road
Go to Wenchuan.
Go to Wenchuan.
Go to the epicenter of the earthquake .
But how on earth? All roads were damaged and all gas stations controlled by troops. A 500 ml coke bottle filled with petrol was priced at 20 yuan (2.88USD) on the black market. On May 14th, I fuelled a rented motorcycle with several of these and began my long journey to Wenchuan, all off track. 10 kilometers later, I was stopped by police, so Ibegan to walk. Half way there I was offered a lift by Wang, an emergency worker, driving a bulldozer. In return I had to promise to check on his good friend Tan, the headmaster of a primary school inside Wenchuan town.
At first on a handsome motorcycle, then on an awesome bulldozer, and finally on foot, I reached my destination seven and a half hours later. It was May 15th. The first living being I encountered as I arrived at the primary school was Tan the headmaster, soaked head-to-toe in blood. He told me that all his family had been killed, only he survived and he could not even estimate how many of his pupils were dead. The news of Tan’s survival was delivered to Wang the bulldozer driver via satphone and my editor in Beijing.
I was most delighted to bump into Reuters text colleague Emma Graham-Harrison, who had got there by walking for 10 hours. I was ravenously hungry and she shared her food and water purification pills with me. My computers and satellite phone batteries were flat. I set off with my car charger and luckily found an abandoned car torn into two parts. Unfortunately shortly afterwards I was accosted by a drunken policeman who forced me away, accusing me of ”damaging public property”.
That night we slept in the street. The next morning we went back to Dujiangyan by boat. I met emergency worker Wang again in Chengdu, his leg had been fractured in an accident but to show his gratitude for the new’s of his friend’s survival he invited me to dinner at which he told me how Headmaster Tan had become a hero among the local rescue teams. And then again, the haunting images emerged from behind my nightmare.