`I have no home, and I have no family'

China quake survivors facing death toll that might reach 50,000

May 16, 2008|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

DUJIANGYAN, China -- At 2:28 p.m. on Monday, Liu Wei was at his desk in the animal-breeding center, where he works as a researcher, when his world began to shake.

Like everyone else in the office, the 39-year-old father stumbled out into the yard before beginning the slow walk home through city streets paralyzed by traffic and emergency vehicles and the chaos that engulfed one of the areas in China hardest-hit by an earthquake in which authorities said the death toll might reach 50,000.

When Liu set foot on his leafy block, he was comforted by what he saw: a row of buildings, all six stories, all with blue glass windows and tidy balconies, virtually intact.

Until he arrived at his own building, which was gone.

When the apartment building at No. 74 Pu Yang Road - seemingly indistinguishable from the ones around it - sank into a pile of bricks and rebar and rubble, it snatched more than its share from 19 families. It took Liu's wife of 10 years, Chen Yong, who was home that day in their three-bedroom apartment on the second floor.

Something else awaited him: When he went to inform his 9-year-old son, Liu Yixiang, that his mother was missing, the father found the Xinjian Primary School in ruins. Liu, a dignified man with rounded features and a buzz cut, cremated the body of his only child before he could find the body of his wife.

"What do I have left in the world?" he said yesterday afternoon, still wearing the bright green polo shirt and navy blue windbreaker he wore to work Monday morning. He stood facing the mangled pile that used to be his building and answered his own question: "I have nothing. I have nothing. I have no home, and I have no family."

There's not much use in itemizing and comparing and isolating the most exquisite suffering to come out of Sichuan province, where the death toll climbs by thousands every day; it officially reached at least 19,500 yesterday, though China's Cabinet estimates that the toll could more than double that.

But walk down enough ruined streets, or stand beside enough endlessly churning bulldozers, and Liu's experience stands out even by the wretched standards of the moment.

"He was very good in school; one of the top three students in the class," Liu said of his son. And then his scientist's mind shifted course, gripped once again by the question that won't let him go:

"How can one building fall like that? The ones on the sides are fine. What kind of architecture is this?"

By yesterday, 72 hours after the quake, the shady spot on the sidewalk opposite the pile had become the unofficial meeting point for the survivors of No. 74. Sharing the second floor with the Liu family had been the Ye family: Ye Bangqing, his wife, Tie Cunhong, and their 16-year-old daughter, Ye Qing. Usually, the mother left home at that hour to take lunch to her husband at his mobile-phone shop. But on that day, she stayed home to pack up the family's winter clothes for the season.

Three days later, her widower - a quiet man wearing a dark business suit and red sneakers - was still standing across the street, waiting for a sign of her remains, reflexively offering a cigarette to anyone who asked after him.

"There are still people in there," he said.

In the beginning, 20 people at No. 74 were missing. Only one was found alive, and that was early. Since then, they've found nobody living. With so many buildings collapsed in Dujiangyan, it was days before crews showed up with equipment at No. 74, the families say. At first they clawed with their hands, but eventually some of them went to the search-and-rescue headquarters, where they filled out a form.

Liu and Chen had done well enough; last year he saved up and bought her a computer because she liked to surf the Web. He likes to think that's what she was doing Monday, but he can't know.

"Nothing matters," he said. "Everything that I did was for my wife and child. Now they are gone. What do I need material possessions for? I can sleep anywhere tonight. It doesn't matter to me anymore.

"I waited all night, but I didn't see her." Finally, yesterday morning, the crews found Chen's body, just where Liu predicted they would: in the wreckage of the tiny living room they shared. The crews wrapped the body in a sheet of plastic and put it in a tent beside the building. And then they went back to digging.

The day stretched into the afternoon, the diggers, one turquoise, one orange, prowled around the pile, and a German shepherd sniffed and darted in the rubble. The families didn't budge, surrounded by traffic and pedestrians and rescue crews heading in one direction or the other. By the latest official figures, 26,000 people remain buried in the rubble of Sichuan.

After a while, Liu said apologetically: "Excuse me. I need to take my wife to the funeral home." He turned and headed into the crowd.

Evan Osnos writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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