Four years ago this afternoon, at 2:12pm, the ground began to shake underneath the mountains of western Sichuan Province. By the end of the day, entire cities were flattened, hillsides had fallen into rivers, 90,000 people were dead, and millions had lost loved ones.
I remember what I was doing when I heard the news. I was in a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and during a break someone said they were getting reports of an earthquake in Sichuan. At the time the death toll was still just in the dozens. Along with the rest of the world, we watched in horror and sadness as the death toll mounted…and mounted….and mounted.
Where were you and what were you doing when you first heard the news? Leave a comment and tell your story.
(image source: The Big Picture)
A few days before May 12th, we purchased the new National Geographic magazine which highlighted China with a nice, big map of the country. In the busyness of packing we never read it, but packed it with our carry-ons to enjoy on during the long flight. Early that morning we boarded a plane in Dayton Ohio and headed to Chicago to connect with our plane bound for BJ. On the news in Dayton, there were reports of a “small earthquake in a desolate (not many inhabitants) area of China.” By the time we left Chicago, approx 12 hours after the earthquake, reports we beginning to tell the magnitude of the horror. During the long flight, we opened our magazine, unfolded the map and chatted with fight crew personnel, seat-mates, strangers and dozens who were interested in learning more about the area where the earthquake was located. Sadly, some knowledgeable (SiChuan residents) people told us the news reports were wrong – many thousands of people lived in that area and surely, there lots of casualties & injuries. We offered our warmest thoughts and hopes to each one.
I was on a train from Siping to Beijing. I got two texts at about the same time, one from Qufu and one from Beijing about an earthquake (telling me for obvious reasons AND because I had lived in Sichaun for five years). I was confused at first. Was the earthquake in BJ? Qufu? Sichuan? Text is not the easiest way to communicate catastophic events and truly capture the magnitude (I do appreciate the texts, it just took a while for me to really process what had happened!). Amy
CQ mary beth
I was in the States on summer break and was woken up by a text message from a friend saying there was an earthquake in Sichuan. It was 8 am so i said a few curse words and then went back to sleep. When i woke up again i started looking it up online and was heart broken by what i saw. My Chinese host family and most of my friends from the exchange program i was in were in Chengdu. Of course i was really worried but later my host sister called me and told me everyone i knew was okay. She also said that there were lots of aftershocks so everyone was staying and sleeping outside, too afraid of another bad earthquake. Apparently all the teachers had fled campus, presumably to take care of their families, so all the students felt really alone.
Now im in CQ teaching several students from the affected area. One student told me the only reason he survived is because he jumped out his classroom window. Most of his classmates died. It’s truly heart-wrenching but im so thankful to be back in this area.
I was able to visit that area just a few weeks ago. Though reconsctruction has been amazing, there’s still plenty of chilling evidence of the quake – a bridge that was fallen, landslides along roads that I was told still have vehicles and bodies buried within…
A friend suggested I tell my story on here. It’s long, so bear with me:
There are millions and millions of people who all have a story, so my story about the earthquake is quite insignificant and hardly heroic. I suffered little and sacrificed little.
I was standing at my desk in the office prepping for my grade 3 math class which I was to teach at 2:50. I was talking across the room to another teacher when it started. Suddenly, my training from high school emergency drills kicked in and I was quickly under my desk covering my head. In my mind I was thinking “okay the earth is quaking, the earth is quaking, the earth is quaking” but it didn’t really register that it was an earthquake in such terminology. Being in a one story building meant I was directly feeling the ground move in every direction and my heart and my voice cried out to the Son instantly. I shouted His name over and over and over. At some point I peered outside and saw lots of students and teachers rushing somewhere. The earthquake wasn’t over but I went outside to look. I was really confused so I ran back inside and got under my desk again. I feel silly thinking about that as I probably should have just stayed outside. But as the earthquake’s intensity lessened I went outside to where the students were on the basketball court. They were all looking in the direction of the new 4 story high school building and I was certain it was falling down because I heard a large crash; my heart worried that there were still students and teachers in it. When I got outside I discovered thankfully that wasn’t true. Right after realizing that I violently sneezed twice. Then I attempted to walk toward some students, but it was difficult because the ground was still quaking and I had to walk almost sideways. I saw my student Bryant whose face was full of shock and then the headmaster’s son ran up to me and shouted, “Ms. Maliska, how long have you been here? 10 years? 5 years? Have you ever known this before?” I said, “No” of course and he responded with a chuckled, “Me neither.”
Still in a confused state, I looked around and noticed my grade 7 girls were crying. I went to comfort them but realized we should get everyone out somewhere that wasn’t surrounded by buildings. I told another teacher to start moving everyone. As we moved to the soccer field we were surprised to see the massive brick wall (about 60 meters long and 20 meters high) that surrounded the field had fallen altogether in one big push. That was the sound of something falling I had heard. I noticed the high school students rushing out to the field as well from across the campus. At that point my goal was to continue comforting the girls and checking on all of the students. I asked all the Chinese teachers to put all the classes together so we could make sure everyone was accounted for. Even at that point of seeing to the safety of the middle school and high school students, the severity of what had just happened never crossed my mind. I saw fear on so many faces and even took a few moments to pray in Chinese with the headmaster’s mother, who being 86 at the time, was petrified. But it wasn’t until I saw Bryant again did I even consider that a disaster had just taken place. As I expressed how glad I was that all our students were okay (although I didn’t even know if everyone was okay in the primary school) he turned to me with a somber yet perceptive look and said, “Yes, it’s true, but maybe so many people is died in Dujiangyan.” Even then, however, it wasn’t “real” to me. What I had just gone through was just a “game” that I had successfully come away from without injury.
I made my rounds from group to group and all students and teachers, aside from a small scratch here and there, had come away without injury. I distinctly remember though that while tears didn’t fall from the boys eyes in grade 7, they were very shaken up. I remember Nicholas (my big boy) extremely nervous and fearful; Adam worried about his mom; Sun, shutting out everyone, intensely prayed through his prayer beads. As I looked over the crowds of students of all ages, everyone had a worry on their heart from this surreal event. One high school student, though, came up to me with a different kind of worry; he came asking about his PSP that I had taken from him because he had used it in class the week before. I just looked at him with a “are you really asking me that right now?” look and told him it was in my apartment and I was NOT risking my life to go to my third floor apartment to search for his silly electronic device and that if it was broken I’d buy him a new one. He understood but unfortunately most of the high school students had their possessions they had run away from in the classroom on their heart: laptops, PSPs, mobile phones, etc. I felt sad that that’s all they could think of but just prayed for them to remember that this event is much bigger than those temporary things, even though I too didn’t quite understand that fully yet.
At some point I remembered I had not checked on the primary school students and quickly rushed between tall dorms and classrooms (which I worried would fall on me) to the other side of campus. When I got to the soccer field I noticed all the perimeter walls had fallen down and people were everywhere. It had already been 1-2 hours since the quake and people had rushed over the fallen walls on to our campus and started setting up tents (our campus had become a place of refuge). I found my grade 5 students happy to see me yet frightened at the same time. I spent about an hour with them, comforting them and just being available for them to hang on. Then it was dinner time; makeshift noodles for 350 kids. At that time I went back over to check on the middle school and it was then that speech of what to do for the evening was rampart. Makeshift tents were being set up by students and teachers. So to provide for those around me, I bravely (like a crazy woman) went into my third floor apartment to get some bedding, yoga mats, and warm clothes (I did not get the PSP, haha). I was entirely frightened to do so and had to have another teacher stay at the bottom of the building just in case something happened. My house was a wreck but not as bad as I would have thought.
I decided that it was imperative for me to be with my grade 5 class that evening. We stayed under the basketball dome and attempted to stay comforted through the many aftershocks and the strangely cold weather. That evening it rained the heaviest rain I have ever experienced and I just whispered to God through my internal fears that had been masked through necessary outward strength and asked him what he was doing. I worried about all the stranded people in town; I worried about my babies I was laying next to. I did not sleep at all that night but when the morning came and I saw that kitchen staff had caught water in big blue bins and were cooking with it I understood the rain, though I didn’t understand much else, other than His purposes would come to light in all of this.
It took me 17 hours to get a text message through to my brother in Chengdu, which was only an hour away. It took me 24 hours to get a text through to America to let my mother know her daughter and son were okay. And it was three days before the reality of what had happened sunk in. It was then that I decided to bike to town and witness personally the devastation my student Bryant had, with such insight, understood. It was everywhere in Dujiangyan. Apartments were ripped open and crumbling, hanging on by a thread, with evidences of lives once lived in those places still there; my heart broke. On one of my favorite streets, whole buildings were in piles and men worked tirelessly to find people in the wreckage. There I could smell Death. In this moment of vulnerability and heartache, though, I was reassured by the voice of Peace that these beautiful Chinese people, who are a resilient type, would pick themselves back up and find life again, even though 4400 people had died in the city; 1500 of them having been students whose schools fell on them.
I won’t share anymore other than to say that yes, through, this hard, sad event peoples’ lives have been changed in Sichuan forever. But China and so many other countries came together to help and that was such a beautiful thing. I was fortunate to have not had to experience the hardship that so many did even though I was there. I did not lose any students and all my friends in town I met again. Many of my students and fellow teachers, though, lost family. Tons of parents no longer have a child to hold. Yet, thankfully, I have been able have been able to witness that resilience that I heard whispered in my heart. I stayed in Dujiangyan two more years after the earthquake and last November I visited. Buildings have been rebuilt and lives are pushing forward in spite of the loss. I’m proud of the Chinese people and thankful that Hope has restored, and will continue to restore, their lives.