Beichuan, May 18 – The man was trapped below thirty feet of collapsed concrete, somehow alive although his head, body, and legs were sandwiched between two 18-inch thick sections of roof and floor. Earlier survivors removed from the building had reported hearing voices from further inside the rubble, but one by one the remaining voices were silenced before the rescue teams could free them. By May 14, two days after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake which had brought the building down, all of the people in the building had been freed or had died. All except this one man, incredibly still alive despite the crushing weight on his body. Rescue teams had cleared a path to the man, but needed better machinery to get him free. He could not move, except for one hand which could reach out but not back in. Painstakingly, rescuers worked a line to get him better air and fresh water, and some soup. Day after day, the man continued to survive as teams struggled to free him and other victims pinned under concrete and steel. Between May 12 and 18, some sixteen aftershocks of 5.0 or greater on the Richter scale rocked the town and region, toppling temporary structures and bridges and wiping out the repair work on roads. Yet the crews continued to work, without stopping and with almost no sleep or food themselves. One by one the crews freed victims, some amazingly alive despite their injuries and going days without food or drink. Such stories made the news and cheered the rescue teams immensely, charging their emotional batteries for the next challenge. But in many other cases the story was not allowed a happy ending.
A colonel from the PLA held the hand of the man trapped under the building, praising his stamina in lasting so long under the crushing weight. But as night fell, the man’s grip suddenly fell slack, and he did not respond to pleas to respond. Just twenty minutes later, the building sitting on top of the man was raised enough to pull him free … but he was dead. He had survived a week after the first quake, survived for days with no food or water until rescuers found him, but in the end he joined the thousands of dead. The rescue team wept bitterly at the injustice of the loss, hardened soldiers along with doctors and engineers.
The official count for the Sichuan earthquake passed 29,000 Saturday, the unofficial estimate is more like fifty thousand dead, and many fear the toll will be much higher. Literally millions of people in the region are homeless, having lost everything they know, and a number of cities simply do not exist anymore, their water pipes, electrical lines, and roads utterly wiped away in the devastation.
full disclosure – My wife is from China. While we are fortunate that none of our family has suffered loss from the earthquake directly, her family has lost friends in Sichuan.