Rescue Ends One Ordeal for Young Chinese Pupils

Copyright The New York Times
May 22, 2008
CHENGDU, China — When the earth finally stopped bucking, only one building was left standing in the vicinity of the Yinxing Township Central Primary School, and that was the school itself.
All around, houses and shops lay flattened under a sky turned black with dust kicked up from the heaving hillsides. Yet in a catastrophe that has left 51,151 confirmed dead and crushed an estimated 7,000 schools, all but three of the primary school’s 268 children survived.
Of those survivors, 193 students whose families never made it to Yinxing to join them were flown out by helicopter with 10 teachers, arriving Tuesday night in Chengdu, the provincial capital. It was one of China’s first airborne rescue missions after a natural disaster.
Safe for the first time since disaster struck on May 12, the children enjoyed showers and a good meal, alternately laughing and crying as they relived their ordeal, still unaware that many, if not most, of their parents had died.
The next morning the children lined up for attendance drills and romped in the courtyard of the university where they are being lodged, just as they might in their regular playground back home. To hear their stories, however, it is clear that nothing in recent days has been normal, and that for many, perhaps, nothing will be ever again.
Lei Huazhen, 36, a teacher at the school, said, “I was playing games with preschool kids in the playground, teaching them dances, when all of a sudden the sky turned all black.
“It was like daylight turning to darkness in a split second, and there was dust everywhere blocking my sight,” she said. “The whole sky was black, and I realized it was an earthquake, and I shouted to my students, ‘Hurry up, run!’ ”
Many of those who ran to safety mentioned Wang Sen, a fourth grader who was in a music class on the school’s second floor when the earthquake struck. Some students immediately jumped out the window of the heaving building. But among those who rushed toward the stairway, by all accounts Wang Sen was the fastest.
“He was the first to run out of the building,” said Li Jiaxing, 12, who was in the same music class. “But a boulder as big as a washbasin hit him and knocked him on the ground, and he couldn’t move. He was yelling for help.”
Another classmate, gazing somberly at the ground, said, “We all rushed out the door, and we had to step on him to make our way out.” She said Wang Sen was crying out for help. But with boulders thundering down the steep mountainsides surrounding the school and rocks flying everywhere, it was not long before the fallen boy was struck again and killed.
The others raced to a vegetable garden beyond the range of the falling boulders, and waited about 20 minutes for the dust-blackened skies to brighten.
When things cleared a bit, teachers took attendance and confirmed that Wang Sen was absent, said Luo Yuwen, who is 10. The students whispered among themselves that he was dead, and a short while later teachers carried off his body for burial while telling the children not to look.
Two other children died, a girl in the first grade whose body was found in the rubble with no apparent external injuries, and a girl in the fifth grade whose legs were crushed and who died two days after being injured.
With no safe shelter, no electricity and no telephone contact with the outside world, the teachers established a camp of sorts in an open field, making improvised tents from whatever materials they could find.
Just before sunset, the skies opened up with torrential rains, which continued for most of the next two days. Later that first sleepless night, the first powerful aftershocks came, unleashing boulders larger than the school’s classrooms from nearby slopes.
An English instructor who gave her name as Wang said the teachers struggled to contain the panic, pleading with students to stop wailing by telling them that it might cause more earthquakes.
The coming days brought equal measures of boredom and despair. The school had limited stores of food, so only small rations of corn and porridge were allowed twice a day. Water quickly ran short, requiring people to drink what rainfall they could collect.
A farmer’s generator powered a television, which brought news of the mounting national rescue operation, including a visit by the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to a nearby city. But for the first several days helicopters merely flew overhead, sometimes dropping supplies in the vicinity. They never stopped.
“We got quite used to having helicopters flying by,” Ms. Lei said.
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