Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Remembering the earthquake

Here is a brief description about what happened to us in Chengdu one year ago, something I wrote to tell friends and family. Our experience of course was nothing compared to what the people (who lost so many loved ones) up in the quake epicenter area experienced, something a hundred thousand times worse: 

As you all know the earthquake happened on Monday May 12th, 2008 at 2.28 pm in the afternoon. This was our daughter Emy's birthday and luckily, because of this we were all in Chengdu city and not up in the mountains where I had planned to take visiting friends. 

The day before the earthquake Paddy had just come home from Yunnan in time to celebrate Emy's big day. On the morning of the 12th we got Emy out of bed and celebrated her birthday in the Swedish way with presents and treats. She and Burton went off to school and I and Paddy spent a leisurely day catching up on talk and work. Just the week before I had been away in other parts of China working for 34 days straight. The day after I arrived back our guests from Sweden arrived and Paddy left for Yunnan. The 12th was a fantastically lovely day, sunny and warm and wonderful. I had sent our guests off to visit a temple in another part of town. I was feeling exhausted and loving the peace and quiet at home. For the evening we had planned to take Emy swimming, then all join up for a dinner at her favorite restaurant. 

At 2.28 pm I was sending off some pictures on the computer when the house started to rumble. It was like the whole building was in spin-cycle in the washing machine and something had gone terrible wrong. I knew immediately that it was an earthquake and shouted to Paddy in the next room. We both ran to our front door which is made of metal and thought we would be safe there. But the rumbling had turned into a roaring boil and it was like being inside of a popcorn maker. The noise was deafening. We live on the 13th floor and the house was being shook back and forth and everything was bouncing up and down and crashing on to the floor. All the other earthquakes I have been in (in California) lasted only 10-20-30 seconds. This one didn't want to stop. Paddy shouted that we should try and get out of the house. We were convinced the house was going to come down - working in China for so many years has made us all too sceptical and cynical about how houses are constructed and if the proper methods and materials were used. We both flew down the 13 flights of stairs in our bare feet (there was no time to take anything with us). I was still in my pyjamas. Bits and pieces of cement were falling around us and on every floor we met more people trying to get out. The earthquake finished just after we got out the front door where we met hundreds of other people streaming out of all the buildings around us. It had lasted for a full three minutes. All we could think of after this was to find our kids, our friends and get away from any building as soon as possible. Paddy braved running up 13 flights of stairs again to quickly get our passports, money, shoes, computers and to lock our door which we had left wide open. We had no idea if any large aftershocks would bring the whole house done. All the time he was up there I could see the windows quietly vibrating. It felt like the earth was a living, breathy animal, panting after an enormous exertion. He was gone for about five minutes, when he came down again a large aftershock hit and we all ran out into the streets. 

We quickly bought water and then two bicycles, shops were closing up and people were trying to contact friends and relatives by cellphone. Mobile connections weren't working and the streets were clogged with vehicles and people trying to find each other. Luckily no one was showing panic, even though we have heard that a small number of people in Chengdu leap out ofbuildings in fear and died that way. We made our way to where we could find our friends and children. Luckily everyone was safe and sound. Only then did we learn where the epicenter was -- just outside of the city in the mountains to the NW and that it had been enormous (7.9 magnitude). We also learnt name of towns and cities that I had never heard of: Beichuan, Hanwang, Yingxiu. Quickly we heard that two large schools had collapsed on top of 900 students. 

As time went on the numbers of casualities increased and unspeakable horrors were revealed about what had actually happened.  It is incomprehensible how entire cities can be crushed to rubble within a few seconds.

After the earthquake we have experienced fantastic warmth and generosity from all people around us (thank-you Kim, Johnny, Barry and Carin!) and we have all, Chinese and foreigners alike, gotten to know each a little better and been pulled closer together. I love Sichuan even more today than before and don't want to leave the area. Fun-loving Chengdu isn't the happy-go-lucky city it once was and everyone seems to be suffering from a collective depression, but day by day things get a little better. The Chinese people are incredibly resilient and tough and outside the city everyone is concentrating on getting through each day, minute by minute. It is too painful otherwise. 

 The kids have also been fantastic and seem to be doing all right after a few ups and downs. At the moment they are concentrating on getting through their last two weeks of school. During the actual earthquake they were thankfully outside of their school building doing sports. They felt the earth rumble and shake (it sounded strange they've said) and watched the school clocktower sway back and forth in an odd way, the lightning rod a top whipping frenetically back and forth. They didn't feel scared at that time and their teachers were very calm and responsible. Only afterwards when they joined up with their parents and witnessed all the adults acting scared and weird did they feel fear. Something for me to think about in the next disaster. Up on the 13th floor when the earthquake hit and I could hear the buildings crashing together and our terrace ripping apart, I experienced true, primitive anxiety. I wasn't at all brave, I was terribly scared and realized that I very much like being alive. I was no hero during this time and it taught me a lot about myself and my weaknesses.  

When Emy realized there would be no birthday celebration this day she said "This is the worst birthday of my entire life". In the evening, when we and a hundred plus other people had all gathered together in a garden to spend the night outdoors out of range of potentially falling buildings, Barry Jones got everyone to sing Happy Birthday to her in English and Chinese. It was very moving when we all knew that not so far from the city there were thousands of children lying dead, their parents distraught, searching for them. When Emy and Burton were allowed to drink a lot more soda pop than usual during the first earthquake week Emy said: "This is the best earthquake I've ever had".
Written June 2008


  1. Horrible, horrible but I am very happy that you shared the story and that all of you survived.

    I was in the Tsunami in Thailand and afterwards I couldn't feel happy for a long time that I survived. Just because so many people died -
    Did you have the same feeling? S

  2. Good to hear from you Susanna! I know that you have often hinted at being in the tsunami in your blog, in a very nice way, but I have felt that it maybe was so horrible for you that you didn't want to talk about it. I thought for a long time if I should post this personal account, because actually I didn't experience any tragedy, nothing happened to anyone I know, I didn't see any deaths etc. All of that happened outside of Chengdu. But I felt the enormous terror of not knowing if my children and friends were all right, felt the sheer power of the earthquake and experienced a fear of dying that made me very embarrassed and ashamed of myself. For a long time afterwards I could just close my eyes and relive the whole thing all over again and for months I felt that the ground was moving and I was often dizzy. Post traumatic stress they say. But my experience was nothing compared to those right in the middle of it. I still think of them often and feel anxiety about their lives and how they are getting on. I have the most enormous respect for these people, just like what I feel when I am in Thailand and know that many people I meet have other stories to tell, that are not so happy, but they keep it within themselves. Maybe one day you can tell me your story. It's actually ok to be one of the one's to survive. Nature makes its choices indiscriminately, we on the other hand can make active choices. Stor kram!