Desperate scenes as a nightmare unfolds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2008, 12:00am

The sound of ambulance sirens hanging in the air like a wailing banshee and the sight of soldiers carrying rescue equipment across a field like angry ants - these were my first impressions of Dujiangyan as we entered the quake-hit town.

Mobile phone signals faded once we arrived in this place of despair.

Everywhere we looked, there were dishevelled people shivering in their makeshift shelters under chilling rain.

Power supplies had been cut and traffic reduced to a crawl. Most petrol stations were out of action because of the lack of electricity. Long queues formed outside a handful of those still providing service. But drivers said they had to wait for more than two hours on average.

The road was rugged and in some places completely broken. Our car had to carefully navigate piles of fallen rocks and debris. It took me more than 21/2 hours to cover the 50km between the downtown area and a collapsed school.

Li Qiang, a local resident we picked up on the road, told me most families living in Dujiangyan were poor farmers, with each household earning about 500 yuan (HK$558) a month.

Mr Li, who had lost contact with his family since the quake, was desperate to reach his home. Because of the breakdown in communications, he said he had no idea whether his parents had survived the powerful quake.

'I want to buy some food for my family but all shops are closed. We are running out of everything,' he said.

Most families in Dujiangyan were left with nothing overnight. In one tiny survivors' camp I visited, 19 people from nine families had to share a makeshift tent.

One of them described the strange tranquility they experienced hours before the quake hit.

'The sun had been shining brightly on Monday morning. Suddenly, a weird wind blew over the field. The road began to shake like a wave. Then roof tiles and glass fell down [from buildings] and broke into pieces.'

Thousands of police were racing to rescue buried students at the collapsed school site. A military officer told me more than 10,000 had been sent to Dujiangyan for disaster relief.

Watching them digging through the rubble for survivors, I felt a mixed tinge of hope and despair. I found my clothes soaked in cold sweat as the nightmarish scenes unfolded before my eyes. The stench of death made me sick. I had not eaten for hours and had lost all appetite.