No one left behind

2008-05-21 01:28:51 GMT       2008-05-21 09:28:51 (Beijing Time)        China Daily      

Soldiers evacuate a survivor from the earthquake-hit Jinhua town of Mianzhu county, Sichuan province. REUTERS

Chanting loudly, airborne soldiers and commanders roared a triumphant military song at the decimated mountainside Monday, a week after the massive 8.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Sichuan.

The group had just helped evacuate 56 quake victims from Sanjiang village. Located near Mianzhu city, it was the last isolated pocket in Southwest China to be reached by soldiers.

Mianzhu, better known as home to Asia's deepest well, boasts an 8,875-m deep behemoth for probing underground oil and gas. Last week's 8.0-magnitude quake shook the city and its surrounding villages.

President Hu Jintao pledged Sunday efforts would be made to reach "every quake-hit village" - not just towns and cities.

Airborne corps commander Dai Zhiqiang and his troops answered Hu's call with a 21-member evacuation team, including several volunteers with mountaineering experience.

Dai, who enlisted with the corps in 1989, was determined to evacuate every Sanjiang villager - even if it meant carrying each one on his back.

As he sat around the bonfire talking and laughing with the villagers that evening, he made a promise:He told the village head, even if the helicopters were unable to reach the quake victims, his troops would evacuate the people via a land route.

But both plans seemed impossible when heavy rains began churning the ground into mud. Rubble from the tremors had already obstructed 40 km of road. The mud flow only made things worse, obliterating all roads from the mountainside to the village.

In addition to geographic constraints, debris littered the area between two ridges where the helicopters were designated to land.

But Dai refused to be daunted by the task ahead. He instead split his troops into two groups: one to monitor changes in the mountain's faade, and the other to assess damage in the evacuees' shelters.

As they worked, rain and strong winds loosened rocks from the mountains. The villagers had learned long ago not to venture out in the rain for fear of falling boulders, which tumbled down with enough force to kill cattle.

"Our leader loves his soldiers; he's at the forefront of all these dangerous tasks," one soldier said of Dai.

"This is nothing!" another shouted to the commander.

But he muttered a prayer when he turned his back. "Please, let it stop raining. Otherwise the helicopters cannot land."

Finally, the rain stopped at 2 am. The villagers' shelters were not damaged, and the rain did not cause a mudslide.

But, around the region, 155 aftershocks each measuring a minimum 4.0-magnitude continued to devastate the area. Sanjiang village was no exception. One soldier, awakened by the tremors, said it felt like sleeping on a trampoline.

Dai voiced concerns about the possibility of landslides. An hour later at 3 am, his fears came true. A loud rumbling sound confirmed there was a landslide on Lijiashan Mountain. Boulders smashed against each other with immense force, causing silver sparks to fly upon impact.

Their troubles were not just limited to the mountain's rumbling. Before dawn, two wild dogs slunk into the area and bit one of the villagers. The feral dogs had snuck in from destroyed regions nearby.

A military doctor worried the canines could be carrying disease, so the dogs were put down.

Just two hours later at 5 am, only half of Lijiashan Mountain remained. It looked as if the other side had been sliced away with a knife.

At 6 am, another landslide forced more mud and rocks down the dilapidated mountainside like a waterfall. With a great roaring sound, the river of rocks flattened trees and everything else in its path.

Dai wanted to get everyone out of the area before the situation further worsened. But outgoing calls for help did not go through. One satellite phone was out of battery, and the other had no signal. Messages sent via satellite navigational systems also heard no response.

Air currents created by the landslide smothered the village with choking swirls of dust and sand. It was impossible to see anything more than a meter away, and the thick clouds of particles even made it difficult for masked soldiers to breathe.

At 10 am, the village suffered a sixth landslide. This time, boulders the size of cars spewed from the mountain.

One expert mountaineer warned repeated landslides could make the 300-m-high mountain peak collapse, producing massive shock waves from east to west.

"In that case, you would be dead before you hit the ground," he said.

Hearing this grim prognosis, the women of the village began to cry. The men paced helplessly in circles. In a moment of despair, one volunteer wondered if his body would be found if it was buried in such a collapse.

The villagers weighed their escape options. The first two didn't look too good. They could try crossing the mountain, but mud and rock flows had already killed nearly 100 people. They could also try climbing to higher ground, but that would be much too difficult for the young children, elderly and wounded.

The fate of the villagers was up to five young men, who stepped forward to help. The volunteers, all experienced with mountain-climbing, would travel 40 km on the perilous mountain paths to Hongbai town. Once they got there, they would notify headquarters and have helicopters dispatched.

Everyone wrote their names, professions and messages to relatives on scraps of paper for the volunteers to take with them.

Dai, too, composed his own note. But then, he tore his message to pieces. "Tell the headquarters that I have nothing to say except this: Come rescue the people," he said firmly.

At 11 am, the flow of rocks and mud was only 200 m away from Sanjiang village.

The volunteer team was about to embark on their dangerous journey. Then a sharp sound pierced the clouds of fear and doubt. A helicopter was spotted.

The soldiers, villagers, doctors and volunteers embraced one another with relief, some bursting into tears of joy. For unknown reasons, the landslide stopped at that very moment. The chopper landed.

Commander Dai had indeed carried out President Hu's promise: After 16 grueling hours, he helped evacuate quake survivors from the very last village on that treacherous, quivering mountainside.

This story was first published in The Beijing News

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