Photographers' Blog

Catastrophic lessons in a quake zone

Ya’an, Sichuan province, China

By Jason Lee

It was 8:02 am on April 20th, 2013, three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake which killed nearly 70,000 people, when another strong quake hit the city of Ya’an in the same province. More than 190 people died, 21 others are still missing, and more than 11,000 people have been injured.

I must admit when I first heard about the disaster, I was a little reluctant to cover it, hoping that this time it wouldn’t be very serious. The catastrophic images from five years ago were still lingering in my head. However, when the death toll started to climb, I quickly cleared my thoughts and got on the next flight to the quake zone.

I don’t want to use too many words to describe how much I overcame to get there because my difficulties mean nothing compared to every victim’s face I saw and every cry I heard on the way.

I want to write about something else that I witnessed there, something I believe is worse than the earthquake. This quake struck a mountainous area where most inhabitants are local farmers. I studied construction engineering in college and it didn’t take me long to notice that many houses in the area were constructed so poorly that they wouldn’t even be able to withstand a much smaller quake.

After taking some pictures of people crying in front of their destroyed houses, I stepped forward to interview them for the captions only to find out that many houses, even schools, were rebuilt after being damaged in the 2008 quake. I couldn’t believe how the lessons from what had happened had not been learned.

Trapped with a way out

By Mariana Bazo

It would be impossible to think of rescuing miners and not to associate such thoughts to the rescue of the Chilean miners in San Jose, Copiapo, 2010. That really was a glorious rescue after a lengthy sixty-nine day underground wait.

This time in Peru, nine miners were trapped in an illegal copper and gold mine in the desert of Ica, south of Lima.

The story began to gain momentum when it was discovered the Peruvian miners were still alive. Then with the hope came the story, curiosity, national interest and comparison.

A penguin’s trip home

I went to the police rescue unit to take pictures of a Humboldt penguin, which is on the endangered list, that had been rescued a few days earlier from a beach full of bathers, very far from its natural habitat. The police chief told me, “We’re going to free it. Come with us.” Lima, Peru, is a city on the edge of the Pacific, with buildings and beaches full of summer tourists, traffic, noise and heat…and amidst all that, Tomas appeared.

Tomas was quiet and relaxed while awaiting his transfer to an island where there are entire colonies of his kind. The police rescuers took turns taking pictures with him and chatting about what penguins are all about. They named him Tomas after their cook at headquarters, because they both walked with the same gait.

Tomas, a lost Humboldt penguin, walks next to a mural at the headquarters of the police Salvage Unit in Chorrillos, before he is transferred to a penguin colony on San Lorenzo Island January 26, 2011. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Tomas provoked a child’s reaction in everyone, making them (and me) stop work to just watch a cute bird, take care of him, talk about him, and wonder how he had ended up on the beach. Tomas was restless and waddled all around the police station, giving me ample opportunity to take pictures.

Made in Chile

The first 17 days in August after the miners disappeared underground are spent in silent vigilance, almost in secrecy. We think this will be just another of so many mine disasters that happen around the world, with some anxious waiting followed by a great deal of mourning. The respect for the pain of the 33 families is felt all across that stretch of desert – dubbed Camp Hope. The pain of that vigilance gives way to an outburst of rage against the mine’s owners, who never appear nor give any credible explanation for the disaster.  Rumors of a rescue plan without details cause more confusion as it all seems improvised. When the collapsed mine tunnel is determined to be impossible to reopen, the rescuers pull back as it seems there is no one alive to rescue. The families sink into uncertainty.

(Top-Bottom) Policemen escort the co-owner (C) of the San Jose copper and gold mine where miners are trapped in Copiapo. Relatives of trapped miners wait outside of the mine for news of them in Copiapo.

“All 33 of us are fine in the shelter.” My family lunch ends abruptly as we see the slip of torn paper on live television. The miners are alive 17 days after their tunnel collapsed 700 meters underground. Six hours later I’m in Camp Hope far from our lunch table photographing the families celebrating. The families learn to laugh again.

(Top-Bottom) A member of the media looks at a computer screen with the image of a note sent by one of the 33 miners trapped inside the San Jose mine in Copiapo. Relatives of trapped miners react after learning that the 33 miners were found alive in Copiapo.

A day photographing at Camp Hope soon becomes a routine so natural I feel like part of the neighborhood. I park my car, grab my cameras, and greet the families who are also part of the landscape. I greet Maria and Elizabeth, sisters of trapped miner Dario Segovia, who are conversing and joking with everyone around. Photographers gather in front of their awning to cover reactions to whatever is the news of the day. Together with them is Cristina Nuñez, fiancee of miner Claudio Yañez, who proposed marriage to her through a message sent from the depths of the mine. She accepted immediately. They’ve already been together for a lifetime. Cristina is boisterous and likes to be noticed.