Sichuan quake: Another aftershock came ... Houses shook violently

SCMP reporter Zhuang Pinghui on the day the Sichuan earthquake struck

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 6:05pm

When photographer Simon Song and I arrived in Chengdu on Friday night for a five-day trip to revisit the worst-hit areas of the May 12 earthquake of 2008, the last thing we expected was to be there for the live reporting of a new one.

Saturday, April 20

I had just got down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast when the jolt came. It lasted for several seconds and people started to run out of the hotel and into the street.

"There has been no quake for several years and I almost forgot how scary this is," said a woman who raced out of the hotel, panting.

Almost immediately the telephone networks went down: no phone calls could be made out or get through, but slow internet access was still available. Minutes later a Sina microblog reported that the epicentre was in Yaan with a magnitude of 7.0. I ran upstairs to get my luggage.

As I emerged I could see people running down fire escapes, many in their slippers and night clothes. Two middle-aged women passed me with panicked looks and tears streaming down their faces.

A taxi, originally arranged to take us to Dujiangyan, agreed to change route and take us to the epicenter in Yaan's Lushan county. We set off at 8:40am and were lucky enough to get on the Chengwenqiong highway before a traffic control ban was imposed.

It would have been a half hour ride from Yaan city to its Lushan county but a landslide caused by the quake had blocked the direct route and all the cars would have to go via Rongjing county. This was where we felt the first aftershock. The taxi was rocking for several seconds and 10 metres off the car tiles were falling off. The aftershocks would soon became so frequent that it did not bother us much.

We arrived in the centre of Lushan county at 1pm, together with a truck full of soldiers and fire fighting department's command centre truck. The so-called command centre in front of the county government was nothing short of chaotic. Everyone was shouting and no one seemed to know where to go.

One hour later we were at the centre of the Longmen township. The houses by the road had collapsed and those which remained standing all displayed big cracks or damaged walls.

In the parching sun in the playground, homeless villagers gathered in groups. A young mother who was holding her four-year-old daughter in her arms told us how the jolt made everything in her home fall, including her child, who had been sent tumbling. It had scared her to death, she said. The girl started to cry when her mother described how the television and ceiling lights were sent crashing to the floor.

They had some instant noodles and bottle water but they insisted in giving me one. In the next days I was constantly touched by their generosity. We were always invited to share food and water even though what they had was limited.

We managed to get lifts on motorcycles into the village. We offered to pay but none would take it.

A teacher from the township middle school offered to take us to the damaged neighbourhood where those people used to live. The road was covered with shattered glasses and bricks from fallen walls. Old hoses were flattened. A rescue team, shovels on their shoulders, marched along the street but returned half an hour later, empty-handed.

I was interviewing a member of the elite Flying Panther rescue team when another aftershock came. The houses were shaking violently, making loud rattling noises. Two girls who had returned to get valuables screamed and ran. We sent back our first reporting materials around 3pm, literally sitting on the road in the parching sun because aftershocks were so frequent that it felt unsafe to remain near buildings.

An aftershock struck again during the meeting and all (Premier Li Keqiang) asked was "how big was that one?"

Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Longmen township centre with his cabinet members and entourage in a helicopter at 6pm to meet head of Sichuan government and the military. I took notes around one metre away him. An aftershock struck again during the meeting and all he asked was "how big was that one?"

Villagers were handed the national flag to wave when Li's fleet swept out of the government yard. A government official tried to initiate applause but no one followed.

Li received a warmer welcome when he swung by the Lushan Middle School, a large settlement centre for Lushan county, that night. People started to greet him when he was leaving and he shook any hand that raised in his face.

The night in Lushan was cold. Young people lit fires to boil hot water. Children were running around and laughing, blissfully unaware of the disaster and the impact on their family.

Simon and I found a tent but there was no mat to lie on. It was then that we realised that, in our haste to get to get into the field, we had not made any preparations. At 10pm we had our first meal of the day - instant noodles. We used the cartons and our clothes to make a makeshift bed for the night. But nothing we could do could shield us from the cold. Eventually I found the cover of a tent and it became my sleeping bag. I fell asleep almost immediately, exhausted from the day's catastrophic events. Simon went to queue for a spot to charge his camera and our mobiles - the queues were so long he didn't return until 2am.