Friday, May 23, 2008
The New York Times Reports Rescue Ends One Ordeal for Young Chinese Pupils
CHENGDU, China — When the earth finally stopped bucking, only one building was left standing in the vicinity of the Yinxing Township Central Primary School, and that was the school itself.
All around, houses and shops lay flattened under a sky turned black with dust kicked up from the heaving hillsides. Yet in a catastrophe that has left 51,151 confirmed dead and crushed an estimated 7,000 schools, all but three of the primary school’s 268 children survived.
Of those survivors, 193 students whose families never made it to Yinxing to join them were flown out by helicopter with 10 teachers, arriving Tuesday night in Chengdu, the provincial capital. It was one of China’s first airborne rescue missions after a natural disaster.
Safe for the first time since disaster struck on May 12, the children enjoyed showers and a good meal, alternately laughing and crying as they relived their ordeal, still unaware that many, if not most, of their parents had died.
The next morning the children lined up for attendance drills and romped in the courtyard of the university where they are being lodged, just as they might in their regular playground back home. To hear their stories, however, it is clear that nothing in recent days has been normal, and that for many, perhaps, nothing will be ever again.
Lei Huazhen, 36, a teacher at the school, said, “I was playing games with preschool kids in the playground, teaching them dances, when all of a sudden the sky turned all black.
“It was like daylight turning to darkness in a split second, and there was dust everywhere blocking my sight,” she said. “The whole sky was black, and I realized it was an earthquake, and I shouted to my students, ‘Hurry up, run!’ ”
Many of those who ran to safety mentioned Wang Sen, a fourth grader who was in a music class on the school’s second floor when the earthquake struck. Some students immediately jumped out the window of the heaving building. But among those who rushed toward the stairway, by all accounts Wang Sen was the fastest.
“He was the first to run out of the building,” said Li Jiaxing, 12, who was in the same music class. “But a boulder as big as a washbasin hit him and knocked him on the ground, and he couldn’t move. He was yelling for help.”
Another classmate, gazing somberly at the ground, said, “We all rushed out the door, and we had to step on him to make our way out.” She said Wang Sen was crying out for help. But with boulders thundering down the steep mountainsides surrounding the school and rocks flying everywhere, it was not long before the fallen boy was struck again and killed.
The others raced to a vegetable garden beyond the range of the falling boulders, and waited about 20 minutes for the dust-blackened skies to brighten.
When things cleared a bit, teachers took attendance and confirmed that Wang Sen was absent, said Luo Yuwen, who is 10. The students whispered among themselves that he was dead, and a short while later teachers carried off his body for burial while telling the children not to look.
Two other children died, a girl in the first grade whose body was found in the rubble with no apparent external injuries, and a girl in the fifth grade whose legs were crushed and who died two days after being injured.
With no safe shelter, no electricity and no telephone contact with the outside world, the teachers established a camp of sorts in an open field, making improvised tents from whatever materials they could find.
Just before sunset, the skies opened up with torrential rains, which continued for most of the next two days. Later that first sleepless night, the first powerful aftershocks came, unleashing boulders larger than the school’s classrooms from nearby slopes.
An English instructor who gave her name as Wang said the teachers struggled to contain the panic, pleading with students to stop wailing by telling them that it might cause more earthquakes.
The coming days brought equal measures of boredom and despair. The school had limited stores of food, so only small rations of corn and porridge were allowed twice a day. Water quickly ran short, requiring people to drink what rainfall they could collect.
A farmer’s generator powered a television, which brought news of the mounting national rescue operation, including a visit by the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to a nearby city. But for the first several days helicopters merely flew overhead, sometimes dropping supplies in the vicinity. They never stopped.
“We got quite used to having helicopters flying by,” Ms. Lei said. Roads in and out of the area were cut off, and the students had no word from their parents. One exception was Li Jiaxing, whose father worked in a stone quarry a 30-minute walk away in normal times. He reached the school two days after the quake, having hiked over dangerous terrain. it was not until the third day after the earthquake that a small expeditionary team of soldiers showed up. That night, 300 troops arrived bearing tents and food, and students and teachers said they greeted them in tears.
“They told us not to be afraid,” said Yi Shoulong, 10, repeating a revolutionary legend told to him by the troops. “They said soldiers are used to the rain of bullets from enemies as they build bridges over rivers.”
Helicopters began arriving over the next few days, bringing more supplies and carrying away the most seriously injured townspeople. But still the schoolchildren were not evacuated. Some parents straggled in from the surrounding countryside for tearful reunions with their children, but many more did not. In fact, nine days after the quake, most of the children had not seen or heard from their parents.
On Tuesday, a small fleet of helicopters began carrying away the children and their teachers, ferrying them to nearby Yingxiu, where they boarded buses for the four-hour ride to Chengdu.
While the children are being well cared for, their longer term care will be a difficult proposition, said psychologists at the Southwest Economic and Finance University, where they have been housed in a dormitory with several hundred children from other areas who have been separated from their families.
“One girl I saw clearly needed attention,” said Feng Weidong, a psychologist. “When she was showing us pictures that her group was drawing, she suddenly burst into tears. She felt the sorrow of losing her beautiful school very deeply, and there’s a sadness which she can’t get rid off.”
Zeng Daoren, a university official, said: “In general, they were very excited when they arrived last night, jumping up and down on the beds and making a lot of noise. They’re still excited today, but for a few older ones, the effect of the earthquake will kick in soon. It will leave a deep impact, especially for those whose parents are not alive. Their teachers haven’t told some of them the news yet.”
“I miss my parents a lot,” said Luo Yuwen, the 10-year-old. “I haven’t seen them yet, and I don’t know whether they’re safe or not. The thing I wanted to do most was to get away from that place.”
No Evidence of Radioactive Leak
A global network of sensors has found no evidence that China’s complex of nuclear facilities in the earthquake zone let any radioactivity escape, its operator reported Wednesday.
The finding supports reassurances by China and the United States that the May 12 earthquake resulted in no large nuclear releases, even though the stricken zone in Sichuan Province has China’s main centers for designing, making and storing nuclear arms.
The network of sensors — run out of Vienna under the auspices of the United Nations and known as the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty — monitors the globe for clandestine nuclear blasts as well as other seismic and atomic events