Suddenly, 'the Whole Thing Fell Down'

By Edward Cody and Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

QINGYANG, China, May 14 -- When the deadliest earthquake to hit China in three decades struck, the little village of Qingyang had the misfortune of being just east of the epicenter. Now, it will never be the same.

Up and down the muddy lanes here lie shattered lives and houses in rubble. Residents who fled the earthquake Monday afternoon are sleeping under tarps, huddled together for warmth and wondering what comes next.

Qingyang, on the western edge of the city of Mianyang, is one of hundreds of communities devastated by the 7.9-magnitude temblor in this hilly, agricultural region of central China. Authorities told the official New China News Agency on Tuesday that 2,000 people had died here and as many as 18,000 could be buried in rubble of nearby villages.

"The whole thing fell down," said Yang Dengqing, 52, explaining what happened to his house in Qingyang this week.

Yang and six family members are living under a red, white and blue nylon tarp strung between a heavy dump truck and a bright orange jeep. He said he has no idea how he will replace his destroyed home. In the meantime, he said, the most immediate issue is how to obtain shelter and food and care for his grandchildren.

"Nobody has come here to help us," he said. "We're taking care of ourselves."

Frustration with the pace of rescue efforts could be seen across the region. Despite the deployment of thousands of police and soldiers, many towns remained difficult to reach in Sichuan province, the most heavily affected region. Even in the areas where rescue crews arrived, the scene was grim and sometimes chaotic.

In Dujiangyan, to the west of the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, 20 soldiers marched across a muddy field Wednesday morning near what had been a school, their backs to the hundreds of parents waiting to learn whether their children were still alive below the debris.

The soldiers donned face masks and headed toward the sodden pile of plasterboard, concrete slabs, bricks and wires that had buried hundreds of schoolchildren when their building collapsed. The number of those killed was still unclear, and parents were beginning to vent their angst.

"It's not your children, so you don't understand!" one mother yelled at armed policemen who had linked hands to prevent relatives and others from surging forward.

A teacher who gave his name as Li and was helping with the rescue effort said that 90 people had been rescued but that seven or eight had died on the way to the hospital. Rescuers had dug out about 200 bodies, including four teachers, he said. One teacher was missing, and officials indicate 20 people or more are still under the rubble, he said.

As the hours dragged on, anxious parents pushed against the armed police, complaining that they were working far too slowly.

Instead of digging in the rubble, about 30 soldiers formed semicircles around the parents to hold them back. "Trust the government," shouted one police officer as a sobbing mother grabbed the front of his coat, twisting and pleading to be let through the line so she could dig.

"I haven't closed my eyes since the collapse," said another mother who would not give her name, watching with tears in her eyes.

In Qingyang, Yun Zhoujun, 36, said most of the more than 400 residents farm tiny plots of land, growing vegetables for the Mianyang market. Yun said he grows cabbage, in addition to working in the welfare department of the city administration. Walking down Qingyang's main lane early Wednesday, he gestured at piles of bricks, jagged slabs of concrete, ragged wiring and cracks running across the walls of adjacent buildings.

"Everything has been damaged," he said.

A squad of four rescue workers wearing plastic construction helmets and coveralls walked slowly down the lane, making sure no one remained trapped under the debris.

Yun said he knew of one elderly woman killed when the quake struck and a half-dozen other people injured. He, his wife and their son escaped unscathed, he said, adding, "Thank you very much for your question."

At the entrance to the village, a lone woman was seen struggling under a steady rain to pull loose a slab of concrete. It was the largest chunk remaining in the wall of a two-story house that had collapsed into a heap during the quake. Attracted by the appearance of a foreigner, neighbors emerged from a makeshift tent and gathered around.

Residents of that house had been fortunate, they said, because no one had been there when the disaster struck.

The woman noted that they were all in town, preparing for a wedding that was to take place Monday night.

Drew reported from Dujiangyan.

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