I have no qualms about what I did for Tangshan. I did what I should have done

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 July, 2006, 12:00am

Tangshan miner Li Yulin's brothers and sisters refused to talk to him for three years after the earthquake, when he put his countrymen before his family.

With an injured hand and wearing only his underwear, Mr Li and three other mine workers raced about 180km from the crumpled city to Beijing in an ambulance, to alert central government leaders after the quake destroyed Tangshan's communications with the outside world.

While 22 members of his family died in the rubble, including his parents and his eldest son, aged 15, Mr Li had only one thought in mind - to save as many lives as he could.

'Death was not limited to my family. When you weighed your family members against the lives of one million Tangshan city residents, which was more important?' he said.

'I have no qualms of conscience about what I did for Tangshan's people. I did what I should have done.'

After jumping from his bed and leading his wife and three of his four sons to safety as their house collapsed, Mr Li, then 41 and deputy chief of the Tangshan Mine Workers' Association, rushed to the pit he oversaw, where about 2,000 miners were working underground. His eldest son was living with his grandparents elsewhere in the city at that time.

Despite the chaos in the flattened city, Mr Li was clear-headed enough to know that his best chance of raising help was to inform Beijing. A former driver and soldier, Mr Li knew the roads to Beijing and how to get troops to Tangshan.

As aftershocks rattled the city, he found an ambulance and sped towards Zhongnanhai, the central leaders' headquarters, with his three companions. Reasoning that steel bridges would have been destroyed and wooden ones would still be intact, he picked a route according to the latter, and his hunch proved to be correct.

After a wild four-hour drive, they arrived at Zhongnanhai five minutes ahead of Tangshan People's Liberation Army representatives, who had flown there on military aircraft. Now dressed in a pair of borrowed, undersized trousers that could not be buttoned up, Mr Li asked that PLA troops, mine rescue teams and medics from across the nation be sent to Tangshan, requests to which the leaders agreed.

Thirty years later, he said he had just one regret.

'Had I requested 500 cranes at that time, tens of thousands of Tangshan people would have been saved. When the PLA arrived in Tangshan, they were empty-handed,' he said.

It took about a week for cranes to reach the city.

A hero to many, Mr Li's actions put him at odds with his siblings, who felt he should have tried to save their parents and other family members first. Their anger was fuelled by his decision to search for his missing miners on his return from Beijing.

The Kailuan mine Mr Li worked for operated eight pits and employed about 90,000 miners - 20,000 of whom were down in the pits when the quake struck. None of those down the Tangshan mine died in the quake.

Mr Li was not reunited with his wife and children until four days after the quake.

His 66-year-old wife, Meng Qingfen , said her husband's brothers and sisters refused to contact him for three years after the quake.

'They hated him for not staying to dig out his family members. It took some time before they understood and reconciled,' she said.

Despite being commended by then acting premier Hua Guofeng , Mr Li lives on a monthly pension of 915 yuan and leads a simple life in retirement.

The only exception has been the attention he has received from mainland and overseas reporters.

'This is the 77th interview I have conducted since March,' he said last month.

The impact of the disaster has not dissipated with time. He can only remember his eldest son from a black-and-white family photograph taken a week before the quake.

'During normal times I don't want to recall the past. It's like smoke and passing clouds. It's all in the past. Those who survived should live for the better, and the dead are dead,' he said.