The day that time stood still: hundreds die in Yunnan quake despite warnings

Many died as shoddy homes crumbled despite warnings that a major earthquake was possible along a fault line in Yunnan province

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 5:05am

In a way, time stopped at about 4.30pm on August 3 for Cao Zhengxian.

Just before that, the Zhaotong fault deep below Ludian county in the Wumeng mountains in Yunnan province slipped, unleashing a powerful earthquake. In just 15 seconds, almost the entire township of Longtoushan was flattened. Most of the 617 lives lost were residents of mud homes that crushed their occupants and choked others to death.

It was considered a devastatingly high toll for a rural region.

Cao's home, set above the epicentre, was shaken to rubble. The heaving walls crushed two of her three children and three other grandchildren she raised on her own, working at construction sites by day and stitching shoe pads by night.

Four days later, Cao sat hunched inside a temporary tent 100 metres from her former home in Luomakou community on the outskirts of Longtoushan. She clutched a tissue to her mouth and choked on her tears.

"Everyone is gone but me. I have lost track of time. I don't know what day or time it is now," Cao said. She had a lisp and her remaining daughter translated her words.

Days later, the survivors of Longtoushan lingered outside temporary tents or sought refuge at empty petrol stations. Other villagers carried away bodies tightly wrapped in blankets on hand-made bamboo stretchers.

It was impossible to gauge how many houses had been destroyed in Luomakou because the rubble was so thick. Only a handful of houses still stood amid remnants of collapsed ones.

The China Earthquake Administration's Key Laboratory of Earthquake Prediction warned in a paper published last year in the Chinese Journal of Geophysics that a major earthquake reaching magnitude 7.4 could rip through Ludian and Yiliang counties along the Zhaotong fault. In the past century, 15 earthquakes of magnitude 6.0 and higher had hit the area.

The quake measured 6.1 on the American Richter scale and 6.5, according to the China Earthquake Administration. It was the deadliest tremor since one in Ya'an in Sichuan province killed 196 people last year.

The Yunnan tremor wasn't the only major contributor to the death toll.

Chen Guihua , a researcher at the administration's Institute of Earthquake Science, wrote on his blog on August 4 that landslides would be a major problem since the affected area was in the northwestern part of the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau and was the site of a substantial fault. He also warned that the highways connecting Ludian county to other cities could be blocked by landslides.

And he was right.

Contributing to the high casualty toll in Ludian was the slow progress of rescue workers. Landslides blocked roads, making access to remote mountainous regions extremely difficult. In some remote villages, aid supplies were either carried by foot or dropped by helicopters. Many people living in hidden villages tucked in remote mountain passes lived without food, water and shelter for days before they sought help. In Yinping village, residents said adults tried to sate their children's thirst with their own saliva.

Mostly, people had died because of the weak construction of their mud homes, survivors said. For decades, local residents have lived in simple mud homes with ceramic tiled roofs and walls supported by giant mud bricks and wooden pillars.

Six years ago, the Yunnan provincial government started a programme to make existing adobe houses more resistant to earthquakes. Many villagers, though, said they received a subsidy of only 5,000 to 10,000 yuan, which is not enough to rebuild their homes. A new house could cost in the region of 100,000 yuan (HK$126,000), local residents said. Costs were double for those in remote hilly regions because building materials had to be carried there by foot.

Those who did rebuild paid the remaining cost out of their own pockets.

Local media reported that just 1 per cent of Ludian homes had been fortified, placing it bottom out of 11 counties, according to Beijing News.

During the earthquake, most of the mud houses that lacked support collapsed. Many victims were crushed by heavy mud bricks or suffocated to death in the crumbled mud and dust.

Many in Longtoushan who survived were working on the mountain, farming Sichuan green peppers, the local crop that supports many households with about 15,000 yuan a year.

Across from Cao's collapsed house, Wang Jun's home suffered just cracks. His was one of the newly built structures subsidised by the government. He said the work cost him about 80,000 yuan.

At Zhaotong City No1 People's Hospital, Zu Yuze slept, a cast swaddling her right leg. The two-year-old was found alive under her mother's body, which bore the brunt of their collapsed house. Along with her mother, the quake killed the child's nine-month-old brother.

"She is sleeping better these days, but before she was always shaking during her sleep and asking for her mother," said Zu's 19-year-old cousin, Wu Qian.

Down the hall, Liu Qiyou from Shaba village also lost his mother during the quake. He suffered a minor leg injury, but his psychological state worried his father, Liu Banglin. The boy would not talk to anyone days after being admitted to hospital.

"I dug him out from the debris and he kept asking me to save mum as well, but she was no longer breathing," Liu Banglin said. "He blamed me."

A thirteen-year-old visitor to the hospital, Ma Chenzhi, managed to coax the boy into talking.

"If I were him, I would be completely devastated as well, so I was just doing what I could as an elder brother," said Ma.

Sixty kilometres away, Yu Caiduo, Cao's daughter, sat in her mother's tent and described the toll on her family. In a few seconds she lost her sister and brother, one niece and a nephew, and her five-month-old son. The body of Yu's brother was found lying face down next to her five-month-old son.

"He must have tried saving my boy but there wasn't enough time for him to get out," Yu said.

"I used to think money was the most important thing, but now it's all waste paper when your family is not here," said Yu. "I would be happy to collect junk for the rest of my life if God gives me my child back."