Photographers' Blog

Aftershocks and other earthquake experiences

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.

People and landscape of southwest China

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David Gray presents an audio slideshow on China’s southwest region.

Why I became a news photographer – continued

 China Quake 1

I covered the aftermath of an earthquake years ago as a new-comer to the business. I was living in Rome and we had felt the quake as it struck a moutainous region of Southern Italy just before 8 o’clock on a Sunday evening in November.

It was first light by the time we got to the village of Balvano. As, I drove down into the valley, the village was blanketed by cloud. There was no sound, there were no lights but as we passed through the cloud, we became aware of an awful noise – the terrible wailing of the survivors.

Did my pictures convey the horror of it all like the ones we are seeing from China? Did they eloquently tell the story of the men, women and children of the village crushed when the roof of the Third Century Roman church fell in on them? No, I blew it. I was so completely overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering, by the death, destruction and misery that I blew it. Never having experienced anything remotely like it, I felt a complete interloper ashamed to be pointing a camera at people who had lost everything.  

Why I became a news photographer

The images of the earthquake relief effort in China have been horrifying and deeply moving and remind me what has always been so compelling about my job - the ease and speed with which still pictures can impart so much readily understood information to so many people.   

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And what brilliant pictures they are.

The Road West from Kangding

If someone had asked me just a few days ago what the worst road I could imagine in the world would be like, I would have told them probably a mountain road with lots and lots of rocks and pot-holes. Well, little did I imagine that these elements would combine with two mountain passes of around 4000 metres, vertical drops off the sides of around 500 metres, snow, ice and to top it all off, local police telling you that you cannot get to where you want to go.
The area is Sichuan Province in south-western China. The town is Kangding, located around 400 kilometres west of the capital Chengdu. The road leads west, towards Tibet. I am trying to cover the story about the violence that has spread into the province following the rioting in the Tibetan capital Lhasa on March 14. In order to find out what is going on, myself and text journalist John Ruwitch needed to get to another town called Litang, some 400 kilometres west of Kangding, where there were reports of trouble last week.

On the bus

John Ruwitch and I in front of the local bus we got taken off by police.

So we got on a local bus at 6.30am, ready for an 8 hour trip. Well, before we even leave the terminal, we were asked to get off by two local policemen. ‘Where are you going?’. Well, since the bus had the name of the town written on the windscreen directly behind where John and I were standing, we pointed to it. ‘Why are you going?’. John explained very simply in his excellent Chinese ‘Because we hear it is very beautiful’. That seemed to be a good answer, and we were allowed to get back on.
The bus started off some three minutes after the scheduled departure time of 7a.m. due to our little chat with the local constabulary, and no more than one kilometre down the road, the bus was stopped again. Another two policeman got on the bus, and again we were asked to get off. ‘Where are u going?’ was the question once more. Same answer. ‘Why are you going?’ Same answer again. And to our surprise after a 20 minute delay this time, which the locals on the bus were not at all pleased about, we got back on the bus and once more started our journey.
The road started off just fine. Winding up the first mountain pass (this one was only 3800 metres-high) the snow from the previous night gave everything the look of being wrapped in a beautiful white blanket. And when the sun rose, the gorgeous morning light added a warm glow to an already pristine scene.
We got 100 kilometres from Kangding. All good.
150 kilometres, all good.
At 200 kilometres, a local official was at a toilet stop. He looked at the bus, but did not get onboard. On we went.
250 kilometres, we continued west.

Water closet

The water closet along the road, and trust me, you don’t want to go inside…