Hebei villager constructs large emergency survival pods

A father's 20-year mission to provide a haven from the apocalypse for his daughter comes to fruition - just in time for a predicted end of the world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 8:54am

Doomsday fears gripped Qiantun, a small village in Langfang, Hebei, 20 years ago.

There was no internet and televisions were rare, so villagers had no way of knowing that the rumours were based on the wild predictions of two foreigners - a born-again Christian in the United States and a preacher in South Korea - who predicted that the world would end in late September or late October 1992.

Farmers in Qiantun discussed it seriously and that made Liu Daiyue, who had not yet started primary school, ask her father whether the world was about to end.

"No," her father, Liu Qiyuan, then 25, said.

"But people say it will," she said.

"They are wrong," he said.

"I'm afraid Dad. Can you build mum and I an indestructible house?" she asked.

After a moment's pause, Liu Qiyuan said: "Yes, I can."

He will fulfil his promise to his daughter this week by finishing construction of six spherical emergency shelters that he says could save his family and relatives from big floods, earthquakes or solar storms.

The timing is coincidental but the project is being completed just before another rumoured doomsday - December 21, the date the ancient Mayan calendar supposedly ends.

Each of the four-tonne capsules can hold up to 14 people behind two thick layers of fireproof, shock-resistant carbon fibre, with enough food and water to survive for a few weeks.

Designed to roll with whatever blows come its way, the shelter would survive an earthquake or tsunami. It has an air pump with a filter to deal with radioactive fallout, a periscope to look for dangers and some LED lamps for reading. It can even accommodate a queen-sized bed.

If the world was flooded, survivors could set out for the nearest island, using an attached outboard motor.

The project has been a big financial burden for Liu, a semi-retired furniture maker, but he shrugs it off. "My daughter's concern has troubled me for two decades," he said. "I can only sleep tight with the problem solved."

When construction began in March, most of his neighbours believed he had gone mad. Most villagers, influenced by government propaganda, believed they could count on the government in the event of a disaster. Education on emergencies, especially in the countryside, is accompanied by footage of soldiers carrying sandbags in floods and stretchers in quake zones.

Liu never believed the propaganda and his disbelief was strengthened after he watched the disaster movie 2012, which highlighted the human race's vulnerability to global calamities.

"What impressed me most was the scene in which the president of the United States stands helplessly by as a tsunami pushes a big ship towards the White House. He can do nothing for his people," Liu said.

"If people in the US cannot count on their government, we should expect less from ours. We must help ourselves."

Liu also found some supporters. Some neighbours and friends lent him money to help fund the project, which has cost nearly 2 million yuan (HK$2.48 million) - about 200 times the average income of a Hebei farmer last year.

Furniture making is Qiantun's core industry and many families make tables and chairs for buyers from Beijing. Liu opened the village's first furniture factory and he also made the village's first living-room fish tank, which turned out to be a big business as living standards rose in nearby cities.

"Liu Qiyuan seemed to have the Midas touch. Anything he touched turned to gold," one villager said. "He could have become a millionaire by now if he was not off pursuing some crazy ideas."

Liu's family, including his daughter, all opposed his plan. But after decades of hard work, Liu had established a large furniture factory and asked his daughter to take care of the business.

"I was a naive little girl when he made that promise, and I tried to talk him out of the project," Liu Daiyue said. "But he would not listen."

Liu Guiwen, Liu Qiyuan's wife, said the project had drained a huge amount of cash from their furniture factory. Ten full-time workers were hired to make the shelters and their salaries were not cheap.

"The final cost is several times higher than the limit that I set," she said. "But my husband won't stop once he starts a project."

His wife and daughter now consider him the best husband and father in the world.

"When I see with my own eyes that my childhood dream has come true, I know that I am the most fortunate daughter in the world," Liu Daiyue said. "The love of a family cannot be measured by money."

Liu Guiwen said her husband was the most charming and sexy man in the world when working on the project. "Liu Qiyuan has definitely had no time to think about a mistress," she said.

A lack of schooling caused problems for him when he was planning the project. A high school dropout, he had only a basic knowledge of physics and no background in materials science. He did not know how to read news on a computer, let alone build sophisticated mathematical models for structural analysis.

He also had no books to give him instructions on how to build a disaster shelter and had no idea whether other people around the world had tried similar projects.

"Everything, from the reinforcement structure to the choice of bolts and screws, came out of my head," Liu said.

His peasant wit helped him defeat the challenge of physics. Armed with Newton's laws, more than 10 years of furniture-making experience and technical advice from his business partners, Liu built a small laboratory to recreate and study natural disasters such as tsunami and earthquakes.

He determined the optimal shape of the capsule by observing water spilling out of a bucket; he did collision tests on the shelter using cargo trucks and rolled the sphere down a bank into a canal while he was strapped inside; and he changed the designs of the internal framework and a carbon fibre cover with every failure and imperfection he encountered.

His relationship with his father was shaky after he dropped out of school despite his being regarded as the brightest child in the family. However, the survival capsule project has helped bridge the gap with his 80-year-old father.

His father said: "It is not perfect and there needs to be improvement, but it is the right thing to do," his father said.

Money is the big problem now. The project has not only depleted most of the family's savings but also created a lot of debt. Liu Qiyuan sees little immediate prospect of selling his sturdy but primitive-looking shelters to a private or government buyer.

"But men don't live just to make money," he said. "I don't think doomsday will happen this year. I hope it never comes.

"But my design could be used by cruise ships to save lives. If anyone survives a shipwreck with my device, I will call it a good investment."