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Covering the Earthquake zone: Day 1, Sichuan Province, China
I saw my first dead body today. Figures it had to be of kids.
We were shooting at a county 60km away from the epicentre of the earthquake that hit Sichuan province, southwestern China.
Also had a building crumble towards us so we ran. But we're safe no worries.
The rescue effort in Hanwang county is into its fourth day. Parents and relatives are basically looking for their kids bodies to surface.
Miraculously a girl was rescued alive today. Unfortunately she will be amputated from the waist down. But considering the circumstances I think her parents and everyone are grateful.
The bodies weren't so disturbing, though the kids faces were beyond recognition. Some of the parents had to take two or three more looks under the sheets to make sure the body is in fact their child.
The most disturbing one was of a girl clutching a pen still. It happened so suddenly, she didn't even have time to react. The clock in the middle of town is stuck at 14:28, the time the earthquake hit.
The county is nearly deserted except for parts where there are rescue efforts going on. Some buildings are barely affected while places like the school we filmed today is a hallowed out mess.
The most haunting is the sound of parents wailing for their child when they recognize the body. Remember these people have only one child per family. And these kids were mostly of high school age, moving on to university next year. They're the hope of the family.
Thankfully I have not experienced any aftershocks in this area.
We're returning back to the hotel in the capital of Sichuan province every night. It's quite a stark contrast to be down in the dirt, inhaling rubble by day, and staying in a five star hotel the next.
Anyhow these are just a random collection of thoughts since my boss said I should talk about what I saw today.
I am feeling fine, but who knows if I'm repressing it.
Gotta wash off this debris off myself and grab a few hours of sleep. Another early start tomorrow.
Days 2&3 - Total devastation
Today I experienced what mass panic was and ran for my life in Beichuan county.
We were filming a rescue effort when I saw a group of rescue and aid workers, residents, everyone all running in our direction yelling "RUN!!!"
My cameraman ran towards me and said, "Run! It's a flood!"
We proceeded to run like hell, with rescue workers hollering that nobody should stop running.
To my understanding Xinhua news agency came out with a report around 12:50pm about fears of the rising water levels and cracks in the dam. But my boss says the water levels have a few more metres to go before it spills over.
Here I was expecting a wall of water going to wash over us like in the movies.
My first thought was: I should really get some medical insurance. Luckily my boss has told me tonight that I am indeed covered despite having not taken the hostile environment training course.
I did feel bad for the poor man still 6-7 metres down the rubble. We thought we'd stay there and film his rescue for the rest of the day. This father is not only alive after six days without water and food, but was UNHARMED. He happened to be under a stairwell which saved him. They were just feeding a string to him and dripping water down when there was mass panic. As he thought he was closer to being saved everyone left him. His 13-year-old daughter stayed with him though I'm told.
I don't blame anyone for being over cautious. After the complete destruction of this county after the earthquake, people are worried about more deaths. The county is reduced to rubble. In the old part of town 80 per cent of all the buildings are gone.
The site was extraordinary considering most of the bodies in obvious areas were removed. It was eerie and haunting on a different level than seeing dead bodies. I saw cars flattened like a tin can, bikes fallen into the cracks of the road, buildings fallen on top of buildings creating a mountain of rubble. You can't help but imagine the fear that must've ran through the place when the earthquake hit and the number of people who died in the most awful of ways.
This flood warning was a serious setback for the rescue effort continuing for those still found alive.
Yesterday we interviewed a 22-year-old still trapped in between slabs of concrete. His one leg appeared to be twisted and completely broken.
He was still very alert and chitchatting with his relatives, who were outside and took turns going in to see him.
I was outside the building and chatting with a fireman about the survivor. A young man in the army uniform passed by and was very excited to hear about a survivor. He said, "What's his condition? Just cut off his legs! Come on! We saved two people like that yesterday! What are you waiting for!?!?!"
As gruesome as it sounds, at this point in the rescue effort, life, at any cost is still worthwhile.
The survivor's relatives were all very calm and rational considering the circumstances. They didn't blame rescue workers for working too slow, nor were they impatient. Like the young rescue worker, they are just grateful to hear that he's alive. Of course at this point, the survivor has not been told that his mother died in the earthquake and so, still had good strength.
We ran into his doctor today and heard he was rescued at 20:00 last night, with a good chance of having BOTH legs healing!
Earlier in the day we climbed up a mountain of rubble. We heard the kindergarten was somewhere in there with parents still lining around trying to find their kids' bodies.
An aid worker told my colleague a very sad story about the kindergarten. When the earthquake happened the teacher tried to keep the kids calm by getting them to sing a song. As the building collapsed the singing petered out.
Among the wreckage I saw this one guy laying out photos he found. He sucked in his breath and said, "My god." His friend said, "I know, but it happened. What can you do?" None of the people who stood around
flipping through the pictures knew anyone in them. But they all cried silently.
Then there was a mother standing on top of what use to be her home. She kept yelling out her son's name. At first she sounded like she genuinely believed her son would respond. But much like the middle school in Hanwang county, I think parents and relatives are still looking, even if it's just the body. At least they know.
Filming that scene made me feel just how intrusive and exploitive the media is. We film, then leave. But what can we do?
People at the emergency shelter further south in Mianyang try to send out hope.
There is a tent sent up for people to register their missing loved ones.
Me: "How likely are these people going to find their loved ones?"
Volunteer: "You cannot give up hope. Many people just lost communication."
This elderly lady turned to me at the tent and asked me tearfully if I could help her find her 30-year-old son and her 3-year-old grandson. She came straight to the centre after the earthquake and hasn't been
in touch with them since.
People are holding up signs everywhere and hoping to talk to fellow villagers to see if they've seen or heard from their loved ones.
I know people say the rescue effort is winding down, but there are still places, in the mountain area, where rescue crews have yet to reach because the aftershocks made the roads inaccessible. I heard though that certain villages are still doing well enough but are running out of time without food and water.
The epicentre, Wenchuan, is still inaccessible to cars. Though my colleague, who took two days to get in on foot, assures me Beichuan, about 80km away from the epicentre, is by far the worst hit place. Likely because the county is surrounded by mountains on all four sides and the houses are built on the lowest level.
It's getting hotter by the day now and the stench of bodies is going to be a big concern. I often hear pieces of mountains rolling down of in the distance in Beichuan. I personally haven't felt much of the aftershocks.
As for the cracked dam, I wonder if the army is just going to let it wash out the county eventually. Looking at the damages I have no idea how long, and whether it's possible to even clean up that mess.
I want to thank everyone for caring about my safety. You have to believe me that we are the most taken care of. We always have water supplies and we get to stay in a five star hotel every night back in the city. And I am always careful.
My body is aching a bit from running so hard, and my throat is a bit sore from inhaling so much dust and debris (yes even with a face mask) but otherwise I am fine.
Sichuan Earthquake coverage: Day 4
No survivors were found alive by the time I left Beichuan county today at 16:00 local time. The chances are getting slimmer. All I saw were body bags being carried around.
We found a rescue effort where a father sat waiting to see if his son is still alive under a slab of concrete. It used to be a three story building. Now it stands only waist high.
He doesn't live in the county but arrived two days ago and had been continuously calling his son's mobile until it got through last night and was picked up. He heard breathing sounds and immediately notified rescue crews. They didn't start the digging until 11am today.
Two hours later they got a glimpse of the top floor of what use to be a motel. Inside were four bodies. Rescue crews gave up digging. There's no way anyone underneath would survive.
The father thinks his son is still on the first floor.
He speaks in Sichuanese to me, gesturing behind him, his son's unintended grave. I could only understand 70% of what he's saying, but I'm guessing he's complaining that the rescue crews didn't come fast enough. It still hasn't sunken in that it's now day 6 after the earthquake.
Just across the rescue site was a couple taking great pains to collect their belongings scattered on the street. They put everything in their store. They fidgeted with the lock for a long time, as if they'd return some day. My coworker told me he saw reports today that officials do not plan on rebuilding the county after the cleanup.
Further down some residents are back to dig through the rubble for their belongings. One man found his photo album and his army badge. The ex-army soldier beams and holds up a mobile phone. "I found it! And it still works!" He's among the lucky ones. None of his family members died in the earthquake.
The town is almost empty except for rescue and aid workers. Even they are slowly pulling out.
An hour drive south to Mianyang Emergency Shelter shows a bustling place. Inside people have made beds on top of treadmills, hanging laundry off the bench press, and boxing rings have become a big comfy bed for dozens. There were weird giant sized posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other body builders hanging on the wall. The earthquake victims leaned against them, slurping instant noodles or eating congee.
The right side of the stadium grounds was a big queue. They were registering their kids into a temporary school that will be built shortly near the site. The NBC correspondent told me that this was very well coordinated and unseen during Hurricane Katrina.
So far the stadium is quite sanitary. It's been home to survivors for almost a week, and now houses over 10,000, most from the Beichuan area. Those with their kids running around can still manage a smile or two.
I saw one baby screaming at the top of his lungs and kicking his grandma. Perhaps he's traumatized from the events of the past week. She graciously tried to hold him upright for me to take a picture of him, but he wouldn't have it. He continued to cry.
Tomorrow is another day spent in Beichuan. We felt an aftershock today while filming the rescue but it was very small. We all ran away from buildings or anything that can topple over us. But it's kind of hard.
How does one go on day in and day out not trusting nature? Not trusting the roof over your head?
My coworker's friends live in Chengdu. A newlywed was home alone when the earthquake struck. Her first thought was: What's the most precious thing we've got? She ripped her 52" plasma screen off the wall and
proceeded to wrap it up with three blankets. Then she thought: "That freezer is really new and very good."
I don't know whether she managed to carry that stuff herself.
But now she and her husband take shifts sleeping. One sleeps until 3am and the other takes over into the morning. They have set two glass bottles one on top of the other. They figured if the earthquake was big enough they will wake up.
Not sure that will save them. But I can only imagine how horrible it must be to not feel safe in your own home.
I realize I'm very privileged. Today I was hiking back to the car when I let out a big sigh "Whew! Finally done work, now I can go home!" Just then I was passing by a couple of local residents. I felt so awful. These people don't have a place to call home and will likely either sleep on the floor or in a tent made of three plastic sheets in Mianyang.
My mother called me frantically this morning, telling me to get out. She said, "Why are you doing this? It's not like they pay you a lot. You don't need to prove anything!"
I really had no good answer for her. I had to ask myself long and hard why I wanted to be here. It's not for fame; I'm not even doing on-camera stuff. It's not for the adrenaline, because I can think of a million other things more exciting than running for my life from a possible flood. It's not because of some altruistic reason that I think I'm "serving the people" or that it gives me great satisfaction to tell people about their pain.
The only answer I can come up with is that this opportunity opened up for me to experience what people have to endure through natural disasters. And keep me humble.
I've heard horror stories about trying to get a flight out of Chengdu airport. Some people waited for 24 hours or more. Our driver then piped up: 'Yeah but you guys have money so it's no problem.'
And that cinched it for me right there. We do have the resources. I'm sure I'd get out faster if I got first class tickets. I can live in my cushy five star hotel every night, or get out of here anytime I want.
Sichuan Earthquake coverage: Day 5
The mourning of the dead in Beichuan took place all over the county, just like the rest of the country at 14:28, the exact time the earthquake hit a week ago.
I went to the one that was held on the highest pile of rubble in the area, with only rescue workers from the army and media there.
About 10 minutes before the moment, the cameraman turned to me and asked, "Did you feel it?" I didn't, but it was an aftershock.
Shortly afterwards someone pointed to the mountain behind us. At the peak were clouds of dust kicking up. I looked long and hard and finally saw huge boulders rolling down the mountain.
I didn't know if it was going to be bad, but at that time, I felt pretty safe standing on top of the rubble. At least nothing can fall over me.
We never saw boulders reaching the bottom of the mountain. But it's enough of a reminder that Beichuan is still under threat.
14:28 rolled around and the soldiers all took off their hats and bowed in unison towards the Chinese flag, lowered at half mast. Car horns wailed for three minutes. It was touching.
Across the river, a rescue crew is still busy digging out a possible survivor. They do not stop during the moment.
A 67-year-old woman was found alive earlier this morning. They were hoping for one more miracle.
As we waited for the "moment" to happen, ie. see them pull out a survivor, a cameraman and I wandered off to the back part of town.
I've been back in this county for the last four days. Everyday the roads look different, boulders moved, rubble pushed aside. I'm unsure whether that car really rammed into that railing or whether it was pushed there to clear off the roads.
But this back end of town, looks about as eerie as the first day I went there.
Few residents are allowed in as of 8am today. The rescue workers say it's for their own safety. I find only a handful of them trying to collect their belongings.
One couple I ran into stood on the empty street staring at an apartment building. She points to the window with a curtain billowing in the wind. "I thought I was just going on a day trip for work and would come back that night, so I didn't even bother closing my window."
"Which floor do you live on?"
I counted. "You mean the third."
"No, the bottom floor is crushed under, now the second floor is the
None of her family died. But she lost her housecleaner and many friends.
"My initial thought was that my family was alive so I'm one of the luckier ones. But now coming back ... I'm not sure what to do."
She came back to collect some things. But it's not safe to enter. All she has left is her purse and the clothes she wore out of the house that day.
The stories of these residents don't stop here, but the life has certainly left Beichuan county.
Only a handful of residents and mostly people from the surrounding mountain areas are seen weaving between all the rescue workers who are tired and don't have much else to do other than body retrieval.
There's nothing "new" to report other than the rising body count. The international news is slowly moving back to the cyclone in Burma and to other news.
I'm heading back to Beijing tomorrow. I hear the airport is a nightmare so I'm prepared for extreme delay.
I don't feel like leaving because I know the stories aren't done. But such is the news lifecycle.
My colleague said he interviewed a father who dug with his bare hands at a school for his son yesterday. It took him 10 hours to save him.
He said, "My first thought was: It only took 10 hours? That's quick!"
Think that's a sign to get out before you get too jaded.
BEIJING - As I'm sat at home writing this post in my comfortable dry apartment, in near silence - I, like many of you, feel desperately helpless. I've donated, I've told people how to donate on the radio and I've appealed to everyone I know back home to donate. And they are doing.
But, I cannot help thinking that I should be doing more. With the death toll likely to rise above 50,000 - I want to help with my hands. I want to help give water, distribute medicine, wipe away people's tears. And a part of me wants to grieve with the people here in China.
I'm not Chinese, but I live here. This is my home too right now.
Where I come from we don't have earthquakes or snow-storms of the magnitude that we have seen here. We just don't. And for me to be on the radio every-night delivering news about the rising casualty list - is hard.
Whilst on the show I'm signed into my messaging client - so that should anything go wrong, or need amending, my superiors can contact me swiftly and silently. For the past couple of evenings one of my Chinese friends on my contact list has been asking me the same question, 'Why is our nation's flag at Tiannanmen Square not at half-mast?'.
It's a good question.
According to Wikipedia:
Flying the flag at half-mast is a symbol of respect, mourning and distress. The flag is lowered to allow the invisible flag of death to fly on top of the mast, thus signifying death's presence, power and prominence.
The flag certainly would have been lowered in many other countries, as you can see from the Wikipedia article - so why not here? And I really am not criticising, I just want to understand why.
'It seems that the flag is never lowered for civilian matters, no matter how big. I've basically never seen a flag at half-mast. One time at school the flag was raised to half mast where one of the pulleys got stuck, but that was a half-mast raising, not a half-mast lowering.'
Just how big a civilian matter does it need to be? There is no doubt that a flag flying at half-mast is hugely symbolic, wherever in the world you happen to be. Anyone who happens to glance will know what it means - it means that the nation is mourning. It would in no way show weakness, or a lack of strength - rather, in my eyes it would show solidarity at this tragic time.
UPDATE - At 14:28 on the 19th of May 2008, 3 minutes of silence will be observed across China. Additionally, the National Flag will be flown at half-mast for the period of the 19th-21st.
My father is a former airline employee, so it's odd that I've developed a healthy skepticism about flying. Given the choice, I feel much safer on China's vast railway system; not to mention that sitting and having a beer and some dinner in the dining car is better than the slop hurled from airline waitresses.
But anyone will tell you that traveling by train is much more dangerous, and today we were sadly reminded of that truth. The New York Times picks it up from here:
A predawn collision between two passenger trains in Eastern China on Monday has killed at least 70 people and injured around 250, according to Xinhua, the state news agency, making it one of the deadliest rail accidents in recent years.
The two trains, one heading from Beijing to Qingdao and the other traveling between Yantai and Xuzhou, collided at 4:40 a.m. in the town of Zibo, Shandong Province.
Witnesses said one train derailed at a bend and then struck the other, throwing at least ten cars into a ditch. Wire reports quoted a rail official saying that a new timetable introduced on Monday might have contributed to the crash.
This is a tragedy on a very large scale. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims.
CCTV 1 anchor Wen Jing was caught by a sharp netizen yawning on air, obviously not aware the camera was focused on her. The netizen also posted a second photo, which appeared to show the anchor shortly after she realized the camera was on.
The photos have drawn a number of comments online, with many people blaming the director. This is the second CCTV mix-up recently, as the state-run network accidentally broadcast an anchor having her make-up applied.
CCTV spokesperson Mrs. Liang lept to her producers - and Wen Jing's - defense, saying, "This is an obvious mistake. But we want the audience to understand these anchors are tired, and have to arrive at the station at 3am. Maybe she was too tired."
She said fines for these kinds of mistakes range from 50 to 200 RMB.
The original story was published in Xiandai Kuai Bao, a newspaper owned by Xinhua that is published in Jiangsu Province. It can be found here.
The New York Times has published an article today telling the story of a 20 year old girl at Duke University who tried to mediate between the Tibetan and Chinese protesters on campus:
Ms. Wang, who had friends on both sides, tried to get the two groups to talk, participants said. She began traversing what she called "the middle ground," asking the groups' leaders to meet and making bargains. She said she agreed to write "Free Tibet, Save Tibet" on one student's back only if he would speak with pro-Chinese demonstrators. She pleaded and lectured. In one photo, she is walking toward a phalanx of Chinese flags and banners, her arms overhead in a "timeout" T.
But the would-be referee went unheeded. With Chinese anger stoked by disruption of the Olympic torch relays and criticism of government policy toward Tibet, what was once a favorite campus cause -- the Dalai Lama's people -- had become a dangerous flash point, as Ms. Wang was soon to find out.
The next day, a photo appeared on an Internet forum for Chinese students with a photo of Ms. Wang and the words "traitor to your country" emblazoned in Chinese across her forehead. Ms. Wang's Chinese name, identification number and contact information were posted, along with directions to her parents' apartment in Qingdao, a Chinese port city.
Salted with ugly rumors and manipulated photographs, the story of the young woman who was said to have taken sides with Tibet spread through China's most popular Web sites, at each stop generating hundreds or thousands of raging, derogatory posts, some even suggesting that Ms. Wang -- a slight, rosy 20-year-old -- be burned in oil. Someone posted a photo of what was purported to be a bucket of feces emptied on the doorstep of her parents, who had gone into hiding.
We know a conflict has gone too far when even the mediators are demonized.
Well, how the tables have turned. While we know certain facets of Chinese history (ahem... like a little demonstration in a big square in 1989) are omitted from local history textbooks, the Chinese government is taking it one step further.
China is getting ready to open a museum on Tibetan history, and one in which the Dalai Lama will be edited out:
"He will not appear after 1959," said Lian Xiangmin, a Chinese scholar involved in the museum, referring to the year the Tibetan spiritual leader fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. "This is a Tibet museum, and we don't recognize him as part of Tibet anymore."
The problem with this, of course, is China's version of "history" and "reality" are becoming far more distant and isolated from the rest of the world. And that leads to misunderstandings like we're witnessing now.
(Photo of Chairman Mao with the Dalai Lama (right) and Panchen Lama from the New York Times)
It has always been standard for foreign residents of China to register with their local police station. But now it appears that tourists have to as well. This email was sent out by the Canadian Embassy in Beijing:
Anecdotal reports indicate that frequent travellers to China and foreign residents in the country have perceived a change in the visa administration and issuance process. Official sources advise that there is an ongoing effort to strengthen enforcement of existing rules and regulations. Foreign nationals travelling to or residing in China are recommended to thoroughly review all relevant information available regarding the visa issuance process, consult the local visa issuing offices and plan accordingly.
All foreigners (tourists, visitors, and long-term residents) must register their place of residence with the local Public Security Bureau within 24 hours of arrival. Foreign nationals with resident permits are reminded to register after every re-entry into China from abroad as they are not exempted from this regulation which is now being more strictly enforced. If you are in a hotel, registration is done as part of the check-in process. Those staying with family or friends in a private home must also observe this requirement. Failure to do so can result in fines and/or detention.
I've had many visitors, both family and friends, stay with me here in Beijing. Sometimes, they are only here for a short time or stopover; standing in line at the police station isn't my idea of a good use of time, especially when tourists need to write where they intend to stay on their customs form upon entering China anyway.
I'd be surprised if many people actually followed through with this regulation.
Xin Kuai Bao (新快报), a newspaper based in Guangzhou, is reporting three drunk foreigners (according to the building's security guard) took a prostitute to their apartment in Yuexiu District around midnight Friday. A man in the building, Mr. Wang, reported hearing loud arguments coming from the suite on the 30th floor around 3am Saturday. Mr. Wang says she was shouting, "There are three people here, how can you pay just for one!"
Her body was found on an outdoor platform near the 11th and 12th floors later on Saturday morning, after she had allegedly been thrown from the 30th floor. Police cordoned off the area, and are now investigating.
The full article in 新快报 can be found here.