A town remembers
SINGKIT (The Philippine Star) - May 6, 2017 - 9:05pm

NOTES FROM THE EDITOR

YINGXIU, Sichuan – Ma Yen was a 16-year-old junior high school student at the Xuankou Secondary School in this town in Wenchuan county when, at 2:28 p.m. on May 12, 2008, the earth convulsed – up and down and side to side – for a full minute and 22 seconds, the mountains rumbled and this lovely town nestled in the Minshan mountain range crumbled into a huge pile of death and devastation.

Mobile and land-based communications were cut off. Roads and bridges leading to this rather remote town had all been rendered impassable by landslides, cave-ins and huge cracks; neither could the area be accessed by air because of heavy fog and rain. It was not until two days later that aerial surveys revealed the utter devastation of the town that was closest to the epicenter of the Magnitude 8 earthquake, the 21st deadliest quake of all time.

Over 69,000 people lost their lives, most of them in Sichuan province. The quake, felt as far away as Beijing and Shanghai (with aftershocks felt in Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, India and Russia), left 4.8 million people homeless. In November of that year, the central government of China announced a RMB1-trillion package to rebuild affected areas over three years. 

Now, nearly nine years later, the town has been rebuilt. Initial plans to abandon the area and relocate surviving residents were opposed by the locals, who wanted to remain in what has been their home for generations. It is easy to see why they want to stay. Undulating peaks cradle the town where the Minjiang river – the mother spirit of Sichuan province – forks, one branch leading to the Wolong National Nature Reserve, the core of the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuary, and the other to the Jiuzhaigou National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The air is clean and invigorating, the lush green of the mountains on all sides uplifts the spirit.

Our China Panorama tour of northwestern Sichuan late last month included a visit to this town, despite the difficult access. The old road was obliterated by massive landslides, and a new road, on the other side of the river, is still under construction, with new tunnels being bored into the mountains. With the frenzied pace of construction (there are no TROs here to stop work), in perhaps a year visiting Yingxiu will be an easy, comfortable drive, like the rest of the highway system in this province – and the rest of the country, for that matter. For now, it was a twisty, bumpy, almost tortuous drive on trails that served as roads, shared with backhoes, heaps of steel bars, crushed rocks and other construction paraphernalia.

There were not many people around that early spring afternoon of our visit; we were the only foreigners among the handful of visitors. The buildings of the Xuankou Secondary School have been left as they were after the earthquake as a memorial. A large clock, cracked to show the hour of 2:28, has been placed in front of the school’s main building.

Ma Yen, now 25, served as our guide. She was in class on the third floor of that five-story building when the earthquake hit. They had just started the afternoon session at 2 p.m. She and her classmates ran out; 19 students and two teachers did not make it out, their bodies never retrieved from the collapsed building. Of the 1,527 students and 133 teachers of the school, 55 died. Schools in other areas affected by the quake fared much worse; state-run Xinhua news agency reported in May 2009 that 5,335 students were killed in the quake. An official of Sichuan later reported the student death toll at 19,065 but noted that the figure was incomplete.

Obviously, it was not easy for Ma Yen to recount, again and again, the tragedy that took the lives of her classmates and teachers (fortunately, her parents and sister survived). But she did an admirable job of it, taking us through the school-memorial, building by building.

Most of the structures were five stories high, but the quake swallowed the lower levels. Only four floors of the student dorm remains above ground; since it was class time the dorm was empty except for a boy who was sick. When the building started to shake he ran down to the ground floor, which sank into the earth; had he stayed in his room on the third floor he most likely would have survived.

A teacher and her 42 students were in the 5-story lecture hall and library, which collapsed like an accordion. She shepherded all the students out, but she was killed by a falling metal bar. Her daughter, in a pre-school not far away, was also killed.

In a building that is nothing more than a heap of concrete beams and twisted steel bars, now overgrown with vegetation, Ma Yen told us three of her classmates were buried; two days after the quake they could still hear voices pleading for help, but there was no way they could get to the students. Here, looking down at the ruins where her friends still lay, she was no longer a guide but a student who survived a great tragedy. Through tears, she whispered in Chinese, “So many people came to help us, from all countries. We are so grateful.”

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