China's hour of tragedy, triumph

2008-06-12 06:27:53 GMT       2008-06-12 14:27:53 (Beijing Time)       China Daily

An old couple walk hand-in-hand at a makeshift shelter in Mianzhu City, southwest China's Sichuan Province, May 25, 2008. (Xinhua Photo)

BEIJING, June 12 -- From the moment we arrived at Beijing's spectacular new airport on May 6, the pride of the Chinese people as they prepared to host the Summer Olympics was evident. Six days later, in the aftermath of the Chengdu earthquake, we witnessed an even more impressive face of China.

We were visiting the Panda Reserve Center in Wolong, about three hours from Chengdu, as part of a World Wildlife Fund tour when the 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck on May 12.

The reserve is like a typical zoo but with 500-m mountains towering on all sides. At 2:28 pm, in a series of jolts that lasted about three minutes, boulders, trees and dirt came tumbling down. The nearest of the pieces of uprooted nature landed about 18 m from us.

The center's director quickly summoned his staff and discussed how to move our group to higher ground. A boulder the size of a small car blocked our path out.

The staff set up a ladder as a work-around; we had to crawl through brush, climb the ladder and cross a footbridge to get back to the entrance. Rain began to pour, but we were soon at the entrance, huddled under umbrellas.

After about half an hour, a young staffer carrying a baby panda appeared on the footbridge. At first we thought the panda had escaped in the chaos. But soon a steady stream of cubs, 13 in all, was coming across the bridge in the arms of young handlers. These courageous young men and women had gone back into the wreckage to rescue the national treasure.

Meanwhile, other brave staffers drove up the mountain to see whether the road to the nearby Wolong Hotel was passable.

When they returned, we boarded our bus and our driver, visibly shaking, navigated the 4 km. Upon arrival, we learned that the hotel was damaged beyond occupancy; the parking lot was deemed a safer place for us to stay while awaiting rescue.

As night fell, the hotel staff brought blankets to our bus. Over the next three days we were joined in the lot by a busload of British tourists, some 15 carloads of Chinese tourists and several hundred villagers whose homes had been destroyed.

There was no way to communicate with the outside world. We learned through a radio report that the road out of Wolong had been cut off by the earthquake, stranding us. This report placed us approximately 96 km from the earthquake's epicenter (it was only later that we learned we had, in fact, been less than 10 km from the epicenter).

At dawn the next day, we were awakened by the sounds of clanging pots. Outside the bus, hotel workers were cooking in a makeshift kitchen. The rice congee (basically a watery boiled rice) they prepared was the diet of Chinese babies and "very healthy", our stalwart tour guide, Frank Wang, assured us.

It became our staple, sometimes supplemented with pickled vegetables and small pieces of pork salvaged from the hotel's refrigerators.

The heavy rain lasted two days. When the sun finally broke through, it raised our spirits, but it was not until the third morning that we heard a helicopter.

Minutes after it landed, our guide told us that we would be flown out. We had five minutes to board, each being allowed a small bag. Smiling young men in military uniform motioned for us to sit on the floor.

After we took off, they passed around soda and cookies, as if we were on a passenger airliner.

One of the young men, who looked all of about 18, asked, "How does your heart feel?" At first we thought he was inquiring about our health, but he produced a diary with a pen and asked us to jot down our feelings. Although we had been rescued, the 45-minute ride to Chengdu was bittersweet. We flew over scenes of indescribable destruction and suffering.

All of the bridges that had carried us up to the reserve were in ruins. Entire villages had been leveled. Tourists who had left the reserve in a bus while we were still there were killed in the earthquake.

In eight weeks, the world's attention will once again focus on China.

We will watch the Summer Olympics with vivid recollections of the courage and generosity of the Chinese people. Their kindness to us was unfailing, even as their nation suffered this staggering tragedy.

(Agencies)

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