Sichuan earthquake

Luck, determination and the kindness of strangers: a reporter’s journey through the quake zone

It wasn’t easy getting to Zhangzha, near the epicentre of Tuesday’s earthquake in mountainous Sichuan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 4:30pm

Trying to get to the centre of the destruction after an earthquake takes both luck and determination.

As my photographer and I begin making our way to the town of Zhangzha – near the epicentre of the magnitude 7 quake that struck on Tuesday night, killing 20 people – boulders that had blocked the road have been cleared.

Tourist town eerily quiet as locals assess quake damage

But as we draw closer to the epicentre in this remote, mountainous part of Sichuan on Thursday, the bulldozers are still at work on the road in places.

We pass vans and cars that have been mangled under falling debris, and 20 kilometres from where the quake hit, the road has been repaired but we start seeing major building collapses.

Horses wander freely onto the road, disrupting the traffic, near a ranch that is shuttered. It ordinarily offers horse rides for the steady stream of tourists that visit the popular Jiuzhaigou area.

Tourists watching re-enactment of 2008 Sichuan quake when latest disaster struck

At one point, piles of rocks blocking the road have been moved just enough for vehicles to pass one at a time, supervised by police and People’s Liberation Army officers. It’s a precarious situation, with rocks continuing to fall amid the aftershocks.

It’s been difficult to get this far. After landing at Jiuzhai Huanglong airport on Wednesday night, we were told the police had closed off the main route to Zhangzha and only vehicles used for the rescue operation could go in.

Walking the more than 80km into Zhangzha from the airport wasn’t an option, so we decided to try to flag down a vehicle that was authorised to head in.

On Thursday morning we had some luck, managing to secure a lift with one of the State Grid trucks heading towards Jiuzhaigou to repair electricity lines. But minutes later, we pulled into a petrol station where other trucks in the convoy had stopped to fill up and someone from one of the other vehicles, presumably a supervisor, told us to get out.

China’s early earthquake warning system gives people life-saving seconds to prepare for tremor

Undeterred, we found a middle-aged businessman at the same petrol station who took us to a nearby town where he introduced us to a young local man desperate to go and check on his family in Juizhaigou. He offered us a ride, but we didn’t get past the first security checkpoint at the boundary of Songpan and Jiuzhaigou counties.

We were not even half-way to reaching our destination, but there were many rescue vehicles lined up at the checkpoint, waiting for approval to go through. Some China Railway engineers on their way to clear the roads agreed to give us a lift, but when we tried to get into their packed jeep we were dragged off by security.

Dejected, we started walking – and after just 200 metres a small car stopped. It was already loaded up with four China Pacific Insurance employees headed for Zhangzha to assess the quake damage at a theme park. “People from here are pretty kind. If you ask for a ride, they’ll normally try to help you,” one of the passengers told us.