News Story

NSU Professor Recounts Horror of Earthquake in China


The Administration Building at Southwest University of Science and Technology in Mianyang, China.
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By Dr. Lallie Scott

On Monday, May 12, 2008, at 2:27 p.m., I was lying in bed in my apartment at the Southwest University of Science and Technology (SWUST) in Mianyang, China. I had been at the university since late February, the first exchange faculty between Northeastern State University and SWUST. The experience had been one of the best in my life – good people, modern facilities, an unusually beautiful landscape, and a more traditional lifestyle which included afternoon naps. I had just awakened from my nap due to a loud thumping sound. I thought it was the workmen in the hallway who were adding fresh plaster to the walls. Then the building started shaking, and the wardrobe near my bed started banging against the wall. I staggered over to it and held my hands against the doors, pushing it back to the wall, trying to make it stop. But the shaking just got worse. Then it occurred to me that this was an earthquake, and I should get out of the building. I put on jeans and flip-flops, grabbed my keys and made my way down three flights of stairs and into the road.

People were streaming out of their apartments, some crying, many barefoot and wearing only their underwear. I was shaking uncontrollably. I walked past the soccer field outside the elementary school next door. The children from the school were outside with their teachers. Some parents were running towards the children. Looking down at the valley from the top of the hill I could see a line of dust plumes, either from fallen houses or from fault movement along the far bank of the Fu River. I didn't know what else to do so I started to walk down the hill. On the way down I ran into Julie, one of the Chinese teachers. She was barefoot, without her glasses, and in her nightgown. She had also been taking a nap. We hugged each other and she walked with me back to the soccer field.

Just as we got there, I saw Steven Plummer, another American teacher who lives downstairs. He had been in the shower during the quake. We stood outside talking to our neighbors and looking around at the damage. The building across from ours had a big vertical crack, roughly 2-4 inches wide, from the base to the roof of the fifth floor. After a half hour had passed, I went back into my apartment. The electricity was out, but the water and phone still worked. Plaster dusted the floor, cracks radiated out from each corner of every window and the tops of the doors. The refrigerator had moved about 18 inches from the wall; the desk in my study was crammed against the wall instead of centered under the window; the heavy credenza with the TV on it had moved about a foot away from the wall; the tiles around the base of the wall had popped off. I got my wallet and camera and walked down the road with Steven to see the damage on the older campus.

We passed students and residents milling around afraid to go back inside. When we got to the soccer fields, we were amazed to see it packed with hundreds of students. Eugene, another American teacher, was there talking to some of the students. He had been in a classroom and tried to get the students to get under their desks, but they took off in a panic, running out of the building. We later learned that most of the students' injuries, and there were remarkably few for a student body of 25,000, were caused by students running or jumping from buildings. The building he was in was badly damaged. Vertical cracks appeared in the corners, and the open walkways on each floor were sagging. Large chunks of brick and cement lay on the square in front of the building. Ceiling tiles were down everywhere. Most of the other buildings had chunks of façade missing, but didn't appear to be structurally damaged. On exiting campus, we saw that most of the shopkeepers had closed their storefront gates and were sitting outside and away from the buildings. Some were still selling water and groceries. We walked back onto the new campus where the damage was awesome, much worse than on the older campus. The new campus was built on floodplain sediments, and the old campus on bedrock. The administration building had some office walls missing and the glass around the entry way was in pieces on the ground. Some of the teaching buildings were badly, structurally damaged. The support posts below the stairways had crumbled revealing bent rebar. The tiled pavement around the exterior of buildings had cracks and some had buckled. Some first floor exterior walls had collapsed. The roof of the library was sagging, and the entire building was a maze of vertical and horizontal cracks.

Students and faculty were gathering in the open spaces away from the buildings. We got the news from a teacher listening to his car radio that the earthquake was a magnitude 7.8, and the epicenter was in the mountains about 100 miles SW of Mianyang. We took pictures and listened to earthquake stories as we made our way to the square in front of the central dining hall. There were hundreds of students gathered around portable gas hot tables that had been moved outside the dining hall. The cooks were scooping rice from enormous pots into plastic bags the students were holding. We found a place to sit along a retaining wall near one of the men's dorms where we could watch everything. A few minutes later, about 3 hours after the initial quake, there was a significant aftershock. Everyone jumped up and ran away from the buildings and into the middle of the square. The fear was tangible.

Just after dark, we made it back to our apartments. I got a call from my boyfriend around 10 pm. He had heard the news of a major earthquake in Sichuan in which thousands had died in Mianyang. While I was on the phone, there were two aftershocks so I decided to get out again. I took some bedding and walked to an open area at the end of the road. I laid down amongst a large group of residents. No one was sleeping. People were walking around talking, transistor radios were on, babies were crying, some people were setting up tents. I had a terrible sense of uncertainty, wondering what would come next. After a few hours of lying on the hard ground with mosquitoes buzzing around my ears, I got up and walked back to my apartment. I tried to call my boyfriend back, but the phone was out. I checked the water and it was off. I lit a candle and tried to read, but couldn't concentrate. I dozed on and off. I was awakened several times by aftershocks, including a couple of strong ones between 4-5 am. I lost count after 14 aftershocks. There was brief but intense rain around 5:30, followed by drizzle. Thousands of students are camped outside with no shelter.

– – – – –

Around 8 a.m. a couple of my supervisors came by to check on me. I was so happy to see them. They told me classes had been cancelled until further notice. They said thousands in the area of the epicenter were dead, and the magnitude of the quake was raised to 7.9. Mianyang City was not too badly hit, but the death toll was high in Mianyang County, and areas such as Beichuan could not even be reached due to massive landslides. Mianyang County covers an area of over 20,000 km┬▓ and has a population of 5.2 million, 600,000 of them live in Mianyang City. While we were talking, the lights came on. It felt ridiculously good to have electricity again.

Steven and I took the bus into town around 10-11 am. We thought it would go its usual route through the edge of the city bordering a picturesque rural area. It didn't, so the roads are likely out or blocked. We passed a line of cars about ½ mile long waiting at a gas station. Damage is not too bad in town. Lots of people are camped out along the sidewalks. The neighborhood hospitals have moved their patients outside. Tarps and tents are everywhere. Some families look fairly comfortable with their entire bedroom and/or living room suites outside under tarps. Some are only just setting up shelters in the rain. The bus is not crowded. The streets have little traffic. Almost every business is closed. Some old tile roofs have collapsed. Chunks of building façade have fallen onto the sidewalk and some windows are broken. We walk around the central shopping area and the People's Park, which is full of people setting up shelters in any open spots.

Arriving back at the new campus, we see that many students have set up tarps. Every single bamboo tree has been uprooted to support the tarps. Apparently blankets have handed out because everyone has a green and white checked blanket. There are little fires going at the various encampments and piles of wood have been collected for later. About halfway between the bus stop and the central dining hall is the end of a very long line of students under umbrellas. They are waiting in line for hot food. The cooks have built large fires outside and are boiling big vats of water for noodles. Wood for the fires is from some of the dining hall furniture. It has been raining more than 12 hours.

When we get back to the apartment, Steven discovers that his DSL is working and he has internet access, plus CNN and BBC news. I go down and check my e-mail which is full of concerned notes from family, friends, and colleagues. I send short replies that I'm OK. CNN and BBC reports show scenes of horrible devastation in the nearby mountains. It's unbearable to see parents mourning the death of their one and only child at the collapsed school in Dujiangyan. Steven speculates that everyone he met in Anchang and Beichuan 3 weeks ago are likely dead. The Chinese are responding quickly, however.

The army has been mobilized for rescue operations in Dujiangyan, and they are trying to get into less accessible areas but roads must be cleared. The effort is efficient and well-organized, especially considering the growing scale of the disaster. As an American NBC reporter comments, "We have seen twice as many rescuers in half as much as time as during Hurricane Katrina." The comparison is inevitable. And this is a much, much worse, less accessible disaster than Katrina. The death toll is now projected to reach 50,000.

– – – – –

On May 14, we take the bus into town again. At least it's stopped raining. We walk through People's Park again. There are piles of garbage awaiting pickup on nearly every block. Most businesses are still closed. The few that are open have long lines. We find a MacDonalds open downtown. After lunch, we get on a couple of different buses to see how far we can go towards the hills to the west of town. At one point we got off near city hall. There is a huge encampment of refugees in the park in front of it. We walk through the camp. We do not take pictures. The people are calm and exhausted, but many of the children are playing along the walkways. On the other side of the park are columns of empty buses which had dropped off refugees. More are arriving in the back of trucks. We pass a first aid station and a makeshift kitchen. Water is being distributed nearby. We take another bus which stops and drops everyone off just short of a massive traffic jam. Army personnel are diverting all vehicles here, a few km past the city. Only medical, army, and rescue personnel are allowed to continue. Ambulances whiz past every minute or two going in both directions.

On May 15, some teachers come by to use the shower in my apartment since their own is too dangerous to enter. There are mild aftershocks throughout the day. On May 16, we take a different bus into town. Its route goes past many old tile-roofed buildings, now in ruins. One set of buildings is being bulldozed. They will all have to come down. This was a bus route I used to enjoy because of the traditional architecture. The city is much busier today, still not back to normal, but most stores are open. The people are somber. The noise level is strangely low, no where near the usual ear-splitting decibel levels. We find a grocery store open on the second story of a department store. I buy a few needed groceries. The floor of the store feels crunchy underfoot, like the linoleum is overlying crushed rock, which it likely is. On our way out of a neighborhood restaurant after dinner, we are stopped by a couple in their 70s who made it out of Beichuan last night. They want to tell us about their experience. The old man's cheek is bruised and swollen; his wife's glasses are cracked. Steven's Chinese is better than mine and he discovers that their home is gone, buried in the rubble. They both start to cry. We both start to cry. I've have never shared emotions like this and could never before have imagined doing so with complete strangers.

Saturday morning, May 17, I receive an e-mail stating that class will re-start on Monday the 19th, or Monday the 26th. I cannot imagine either date given the extent of the damage to the teaching buildings. I watch CCTV and they show President Hu standing amongst a group of army soldiers and rescuers in Beichuan. The soldiers and rescuers are standing or leaning against piles of rubble, while Hu speaks through a megaphone. There is a brief pause, the soldiers grab hold of whatever or whoever is near, Hu lowers the megaphone, and everyone wobbles. A few seconds later Hu lifts the megaphone and starts speaking again. All coverage on all CCTV channels is only about the earthquake. It reminds me of the US after 911 or Hurricane Katrina. Some of the footage is very graphic. The hardest thing to watch is when a soldier is being interviewed and he breaks out crying. I can only imagine the utter helplessness they feel, pulling the dead from the rubble, and so much rubble yet to be removed.

– – – – –

Sunday morning at 1:10 am there is a strong, long aftershock. It lasts for over a minute and a half. The shaking is not as bad as the original quake, but it's enough for me to get out of bed, pull on my jeans and sandals and get ready to run. It gradually subsides and I check for new cracks in the walls. None are visible so I go back to bed in my clothes. The building is still swaying very gently. I lie awake gripping my hands over my chest.

On May 19, we again go into town. The big difference now is the huge number of additional tents and shelters. Mianyang is a center for refugees. There will be a projected 11 million refugees in Sichuan Province. Many are also going to Chengdu. When we pass the city hospital, patients are being loaded into buses. We learn that they will go to Chengdu. The Mianyang main hospital is overwhelmed and must move ambulatory patients to make room for the more seriously injured who continue to arrive.

On returning to campus, we meet with our supervisors who have received a decision about the remainder of the semester. Students will be sent home and classes will be taught over the internet. I see some of my colleagues and students in geography. This is the first time I have seen them since the earthquake. They are fine, camped out near the swimming pool. One of my favorite students with the English name of Rock tells me he and other of our students spent the past few days volunteering at the main hospital loading patients into buses and then trains for the trip to Chengdu. "Don't worry, Professor Lallie. We will be alright," he tells me. Then he starts to cry. Then the rest of us start to cry.

At 2:38 pm there is a nationwide tribute for the earthquake victims. The campus air raid siren sounds for three minutes. There is no movement as students and faculty stand with their heads bowed, weeping silently. The President of the University steps up to a microphone. He looks about at the damaged buildings and cannot speak for several moments as tears fall down his cheeks. I don't understand what he says, but there is a clear resolve in his manner.

This evening I decide that I do not want to stay at SWUST without any students around. The campus will be a ghost town. I can teach on the internet from NSU. There is no longer any reason to stay and live with the aftershocks. The next day Phyllis Wilmon and Paul Westbrook at NSU make arrangements for me to fly home. I will return to Tahlequah on Friday, May 23.

– – – – –

On May 22, I make one final trip to downtown Mianyang. Almost all stores are opened and the streets are crowded. But there is still a pall over these normally friendly people. I visit two middle schools in town. I promised a friend in Tulsa I would check on the students and staff at these schools who have exchange agreements with middle schools in Tulsa. Students and staff are all fine. At one school, refugee children from Beichuan are being taught on the playground in tents in which they also sleep. These children do not know the status of their parents.

I love this place – the students, the university, the city, and the wonderful open people of Sichuan. I hate to leave, but I know as my student said that China "will be alright." The Chinese have suffered many times in the past. They are resilient. They will come through stronger than ever.



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