A showcase of David’s Gray images of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake are set to music in this audio slideshow.
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.
It happened and it just happened, quietly but tangibly … it only lasted 5 seconds…
May 12, 2008, 2:28 pm on the button, I was stooping to pick up a gift before rushing off to visit a client with two colleagues. The sudden dizzy feeling made me mentally rebuke myself for skipping breakfast and lunch; in those 5 seconds, I swore to myself never to do it again if I had to attend a formal meeting. But of course, my expressions remained calm.
“It’s an earthquake“, a sharp yet clear voice from the corner of the office broke this temporary silence which instinctively ignited my relief of being faint. “Hey buddy, maybe you are not so bad”, I said to myself.
So, that is how it started … on a normal working day, it just happened.
No worries, we had already had contingency plans…
Photographers immediately rushed to the airport, we skipped the client visit and began to tackle the breaking story. From that moment, for the first time ever, the Beijing Pix Desk began running 24/7 with three editors: Grace Liang, Reinhard Krause and myself.
The first pictures of white collars wandering downstairs after escaping from a shaking Beijing office building hit the wire 10 minutes after the quake struck while we continued moving pix from around China showing general damage like burst water pipes and cracked walls.
While the mobile phones of all our local friends’ and stringers’ remained unreachable, the story escalated. “A middle school building collapsed in Dujiangyan, near Chengdu, burying 900; another toppled in Chongqing…” The snaps just kept coming - who knew at that time that it was just the tip of the iceberg of a much worse tragedy.
The local stringers had already headed to these two spots before I got their first SMS which had been delayed for almost 4 hours.
“Stay safe & fast ftp,” I replied in hopes that a short message would move more quickly.
Shortly after 9, the first image of real damage landed on the desk – then the second, then the third, and then the fourth … By midnight, we had already moved 40 pictures from the worst-hit areas of Mianyang and Dujiangyan, with half of them exclusive stuff. And so it continued …
By 7 am, 61 pictures earthquake-hit Sichuan province had been sent and by 2:28 the next day, 24 hours after the shock, 100 Reuters pictures had moved to the World… And then our staff photographers also began filing from different spots.
So, that was the first day after the earthquake, then the second, then the third - it was a sleepless fortnight until the story began to quieten down a bit…
I can barely remember how many packages we moved from this terrible news story and all of them telling heart-breaking stories, ”relatives mourn near the body of their dead children”, “a 61-year-old survivor is rescued after being buried for 164 hours”, “a girl has to have her left leg amputated to save her life”…… There were too frequent heart warming moments as people all over the nation donated money and blood to the sufferers, 66-year-old premier Wen Jibao crying while visiting the area, exhausted young soldiers resting around their camp fire…
We received more and more images from an ever increasing area including the epicenter and remote villages. In Beijing we tried to take an overview of the pictures file and ensure it was relevant and comprehensible, making best use of the images we had and respecting the dignity of the victims. It took professionalism and a degree of detachment while deep inside our hearts we were shocked and crying. Now things are calmer we have time to think back over that time and the images frozen in our memories - so it’s blogging time.
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…
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.
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.
And what brilliant pictures they are.
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.
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.
The water closet along the road, and trust me, you don’t want to go inside…