Miscellaneous

The Survivor

Liao Yiwu

On the afternoon of May 12, I was walking to my home in the town of Wenjiang, in Sichuan Province, China, when the ground began to shake. I didn’t realize it was an earthquake until I saw all the buildings around me vibrating.

After the tremors subsided, security guards began patrolling the neighborhood, urging people to leave their homes and seek shelter in the parks. I could see giant cracks in many buildings. All the main thoroughfares had been blocked and policemen were busy directing traffic and pedestrians. Inside Wenjiang Park, people set up tents or put down sheets on the lawn. Garbage piled up.

Clouds gathered and the wind started to blow. There were long lines in front of all the grocery stores and restaurants. I found a small noodle shop and waited for ten minutes. The line didn’t move. I yelled at the top of my voice. Nobody paid any attention. People buried their faces in their bowls, eating and eating. I snatched a couple of cakes at a bakery, then I wandered through the streets. 

At eleven P.M. a large crowd of people gathered around a television set on the street. The government announced an initial death toll of eight thousand. A friend called from Dujiangyan, one of the most damaged cities in Sichuan Province. He screamed into the phone: The entrance to Erwang Temple has collapsed. Rubble is everywhere. Dead bodies are everywhere. As he was yelling, our call cut off. 

I felt guilty that I had survived. On television I watched babies and students being pulled out of the debris. I wished I could be there helping, or at least recording their despair. I thought of the professional mourner I’d interviewed ten years ago. He spent his whole life crying and playing the suona at other people’s funerals. What would happen to him now? 

Four days later, a friend and I decided to visit Dujiangyan. I wanted to interview survivors. Since Premier Wen Jiabao was in the city helping to organize the rescue work, the local government had set up several checkpoints along the road. Only rescue workers and government-sanctioned journalists were allowed to enter. 

After a couple of phone calls, my friend, who is well connected, managed to gain us access. Crumbled houses and makeshift tents were everywhere we looked. I met a forty-year-old man named Yang Wenchang, who had bruises all over his body, and his wife, Zhou Zehua. Yang had just returned the day before from Wenchuan County, the epicenter of the magnitude-eight earthquake. 

 

 

LIAO YIWU

 

You were born here in Dujiangyan. How did you end up in Wenchuan County? 

 

YANG WENCHANG

 

About a month and a half ago, a friend told me about a job in the town of Shaohuoping. My wife’s been sick for a while. My kids need money to attend school. I’m the family’s sole breadwinner. It’s hard to make money here. So I went to Shaohuoping and worked at a factory that made steel and iron wires. My job was to take care of the furnaces, and my monthly salary was supposed to be about a hundred and seventy dollars. I worked hard, hoping to see some money come in. Before I got my first paycheck, the earthquake hit. 

 

LIAO

 

Were you inside the factory when it happened? 

 

YANG

 

We had the day off because the factory had a power outage. Eight of us migrant workers were on the top floor of our apartment building, sleeping in. It was a three-story building. There was no warning beforehand. As I was sleeping, my bed, which was in the middle of the room, started to shake violently. It was as if an army of blacksmiths were hitting me with their meaty fists from under the mattress. I was tossed off the bed. Before I could stand up, everything began to shake sideways. I struggled to claw my way to the door. Then I looked outside. I found myself perched on the edge of an abyss, hundreds of miles deep. 

 

LIAO

 

It was only a three-story building. You couldn’t have been that high off the ground. 

 

YANG

 

It certainly felt that way. It was like getting seasick on a boat in the middle of an ocean. I tried to hold on to the edge of the door. I looked back inside and saw the center of the room suddenly collapse. All that was left was a big hole. Three people and four beds fell through the hole, right in front of my eyes. Pieces of steel-reinforced concrete followed them, falling from the ceiling, plunging through the second floor until they hit the ground. 

 

LIAO

 

Didn’t you just say there were eight of you? What happened to the other four people? 

 

YANG

 

They lived next door and had plunged down to the bottom too. All the walls around me started to crumble—boom, boom—with ashes shooting up seventy or eighty feet. All seven of my coworkers were buried under the building. The next day, one was dug out. He had suffered severe injuries but survived. When I left the area yesterday, the other six were still missing. 

 

LIAO

 

How did you manage to escape the collapsing building? 

 

YANG

 

As the ceiling and the surrounding walls were collapsing, I lost my balance and fell. Thank heavens, before I hit the ground, my feet landed on a supporting wall that was still standing on the first floor. I managed to balance myself and then jump one flight to the ground. My body landed on a pile of debris. I hurt my head, my arms, and my legs, but not seriously. If it hadn’t been for that supporting wall, I would have been buried like the others. 

 

LIAO

 

What happened next? 

 

YANG

 

About thirty people spent all day digging nonstop. They were able to locate the guy I talked about. His body had been hit hard by falling concrete. When rescue workers tried to give him water, he spat blood. It looks like he’ll live, but I think he’ll be disabled. 

 

LIAO

 

You were lucky. 

 

YANG

 

I guess God spared my life and let me get away this time because I’ve been good. A few minutes after I got out, the whole building came down. The noise was so loud that I lost my hearing for a long time. Soon after the earthquake we had a terrible landslide. Shaohuoping is sandwiched between two mountains. A river runs through the middle of the town. Within that narrow space between the two mountains, there used to be several factories. Luckily, on my side of the river, there is a hill next to the mountain. The hill slowed down the landslide and diverted it to either side of where I was. The people who worked in factories on the opposite side of the river were less fortunate. Chunks of rocks tumbled down the mountain, some as big as half a house, some as big as a table, others like basketballs. The mountains opened up in pieces like orange slices and then collapsed. Soon falling rocks clogged up the river. The current picked up, and the water grew deeper. After an hour it was waist-deep. I ran as fast as I could, supporting myself with a walking stick, and waded across the river. I left Shaohuoping and walked all the way to the neighboring town of Yingxiu. 

 

LIAO

 

Do you know how many people were killed in Shaohuoping? 

 

YANG

 

I have no idea. One thing I know for sure: I used to see a lot of people going to work or playing cards or drinking in restaurants near my factory every day. After the earthquake, many of the familiar faces disappeared. A big passenger bus carrying fifty people happened to pass by Shaohuoping when the earthquake hit. The bus flipped over and was crushed by the landslide. Not a single passenger got out alive. After the earthquake ended, all the survivors in Shaohuoping ran to Yingxiu. 

 

LIAO

 

I saw on TV that many houses in Yingxiu had also crumbled. 

 

YANG

 

Yingxiu is an old mining town. All the buildings were about five to six stories high. The quality of construction work was awful. No wonder most of the buildings are gone. We stayed inside a tent. All survivors, rich and poor alike, got the same treatment. The tent I stayed in was huge. It could hold four or five hundred people. We all squeezed together and slept on the floor. We kept warm that way. From May 12 to 15, we slept there day and night. 

 

LIAO

 

Were you scared? 

 

YANG

 

Ordinary folks like us—our lives are no more significant than those of ants. What could we be scared of? Besides, during that hectic period, no one had time to take care of us even if we were scared and crazy. 

 

LIAO

 

What did you eat? 

 

YANG

 

Before rescue aid arrived, many residents risked going back to their houses. They would dig out some food and clothes and share with everyone. It was certainly not enough. But under those circumstances, everyone was understanding. On the first day I got a box of crackers and a bottle of water. I had only eaten three or four crackers before a group of kids came by. I saw a four-year-old boy staring at my crackers. He was almost crying from hunger. I offered my crackers to him. 

 

LIAO

 

So you only had four crackers on the first day. Did things start to change the second day? 

 

YANG

 

I was given a bag of ramen noodles. Since there was no way to get water, I ate it dry. I also got several spicy peas. The third day, I finally got a piece of sausage. 

 

LIAO

 

Did people fight over food? 

 

YANG

 

Everyone was friendly. We were all bound by a common fate. At that time, saving those who had been buried under the debris was the highest priority. It didn’t matter if we had food or not. I didn’t eat any food for four days. It was OK. 

The soldiers arrived on the afternoon of the second day. Full-scale excavation started on the third day. They used all sorts of tools—shovels, hoes, and big iron rods. Some used their hands. They managed to find people who were still alive. But the majority had died and their bodies were crushed beyond recognition. Since it was so hot, some bodies already showed signs of decay. You could smell the odor from miles away. 

 

LIAO

 

How many people do you think died in Yingxiu? 

 

YANG

 

Thousands. The government will have the final figures soon. During the past couple of days, a big dredging machine has been working nonstop to dig out a deep pit behind the main street there. Whenever a rescue worker dug out a person who was still alive, the person was given immediate medical attention. If the person was already dead, a government representative would notify his or her relatives and then take the body away for cremation. If no relatives could be found, the body would be registered and then carried to the pit. 

 

LIAO

 

What happened to the bodies in the pit? 

 

YANG

 

They were cremated. The officials in charge of cremation would wait until there were twenty or thirty bodies. Then they would douse them with gasoline and set them on fire. You could smell the burning flesh throughout the town. Since excavation work was done every day, so was cremation. That was a critical time. The government had to take extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of disease. After each cremation, workers spread dirt on top and sprayed lots of antiseptic. They did that to every layer. That pit was deep. It could accommodate a lot of bodies. I was told that a memorial for the earthquake victims will be built on top of the pit. 

 

LIAO

 

I’m getting goose bumps. 

 

YANG

 

I did too. After a while, I got over it. Life goes on. We had to worry about the living. The cuts on my body began to get infected. Some swelled with pus. An army doctor came to treat everyone. He checked my wounds and told me to apply some alcohol or find some liquor to sterilize the infected areas temporarily, until I could be transferred out of Yingxiu. Those doctors had to go treat more serious injuries and tend to those who were dying. I understood. Since I couldn’t find any alcohol, I got some liquor and washed the cuts. 

 

LIAO

 

How did you get out of Yingxiu? 

 

YANG

 

Initially, everyone was so busy digging in the rubble that nothing was done to help those inside the tents get back home. Once the rescue workers arrived, everything was done properly. I left Yingxiu around noon on May 15. I was assigned to a large group. We walked in a single file and used bamboo sticks as walking canes. We looked just like those refugees you see in movies. We walked along a badly damaged road for three hours before we reached a ferry station. About a thousand people were already waiting on the riverbank, but each boat could carry only six people at a time. We let young children, old folks, and the disabled get on first. I lucked out. I was given a bottle of water during my wait, and finally the boat carried me across the river, where I boarded a truck that carried me home. 

 

ZHOU ZEHUA

 

When he suddenly showed up at our village, my kids and I were shocked to see him. We had tried to phone him but couldn’t get through. I thought he must have been killed. I cried every day. I didn’t know what to do or how to support this family without him. I’ve been sick for a long time. My whole body, from head to toe, is filled with bumps. I thought I had cancer. I went to the hospital. The doctor said I had noncancerous cysts. The cysts don’t hurt but they’re all over me. We don’t have money to see a doctor and I can’t do any labor-intensive work. Before the earthquake, we had opened up a tea shop here, trying to earn money from tourists to support the family. I was selling tea when the earthquake happened. My kids and I clutched at a big tree and held on to it. The tables tipped over and all the teacups shattered. About a dozen or so people in our village lost their lives. 

 

LIAO

 

Did your house suffer any damage during the earthquake? 

 

ZHOU

 

Our house collapsed. We are now living in a tent. This is nothing compared to other places. The most important thing is that my man—the pillar of our household—is back. No matter how poor and difficult our lives might be, we can handle it. Life will gradually get better. 

Love what you've read? Subscribe to The Paris Review.