In rubble, they found each other

Couple survived building's fall in China quake

May 19, 2008|By New York Times News Service

SHIFANG, China -- At the moment of greatest despair, Wang Zhijun tried to kill himself by twisting his neck against the debris.

Breathing had become harder as day turned to night. The chunks of brick and concrete that had buried him and his wife were pressing tighter by the hour, crushing them. Their bodies had gone numb.

Then there was the rain, sharp and cold, lashing at them through the cracks.

"I don't think I can make it," he told his wife, Li Wanzhi, his face just inches from hers, their arms wrapped around each other.

She sensed he was giving up. "If God wants to kill us, he would have killed us right away," she said. "But since we're still alive, we must be fated to live."

And they lived. They were pulled from the rubble of their collapsed six-story workers' dormitory 28 hours after last Monday's 7.9-magnitude earthquake, spared the end met by at least 32,000 others. China has declared a three-day mourning period, starting with three minutes of silence exactly a week after the quake.

Their tale of survival is also one of a rekindled love, of two people who might have died had they been trapped alone.

They whispered to each other. They talked of their 14-year-old daughter - who would take care of her? They recalled their life together, the shape of it before and the shape of it to come, all the changes they would make if they got out alive.

Days after their rescue, they lay in separate beds in Shifang People's Hospital. Wang's stout body was covered in cuts scabbed over with blood and pus, and he drifted in and out of sleep while talking to a reporter.

Li, 38, spoke softly and stared at the ceiling with tears in her eyes. A white blanket covered her left side, where her arm had just been amputated. She had pleaded with a doctor not to cut it off, but there had been no choice: It had turned gangrenous after being trapped beneath Wang in the collapse.

Yet they were both thankful.

Wang, 40, had returned home two days earlier, after traveling around the country for half a year and trying his hand at small businesses. He had lost a lot of money. He and his wife rarely spoke.

Li was raising their daughter, Xinyi, on her own while working at a chemical factory in the town of Luoshui.

Last Monday, she and her husband had just sat down in her fourth-floor apartment to watch a police soap opera on DVD when the dormitory, which houses dozens of factory workers, began shaking violently.

He flung an arm around her as they sprinted for the bathroom eight feet away. The entire building collapsed right as they got there, knocking them to the ground.

They were frightened but did not feel any pain at first.

They lay entwined on their sides, not knowing whether they were bleeding or any bones had been broken. A large chunk of concrete loomed inches above their heads. Shifting their bodies, they knew, could cause it to drop on them.

Li's left arm was wedged beneath her husband. The pain was excruciating at first, until the arm went numb.

"I want you to make it out," Wang said. "We have a child, and I want you to raise her."

Through a crack in the rubble, they could see the light fading. The rubble was moving. It was pressing down, slowly crushing them. They no longer felt any pain, because their entire bodies had gone numb. Nor did they feel hunger and thirst.

They had to take turns breathing. When Li took a deep breath, her chest expanding, Wang held his breath.

Wang thought about what it would be like to die slowly, and he made a decision. "I tried bending my neck against the wall to kill myself," he said.

That was when Li told him that since God had not killed them right away, they were meant to live. She said he had to remember their daughter.

Then slowly the daylight began coming back through the crack. Hours later, they heard crunching footsteps on the rubble. Their voices were hoarse, but they began yelling again.

Someone shouted back, "Who are you?"

Li recognized her boss' voice. "I'm Li Wanzhi," she said. Rescuers pulled them from the rubble.

Their daughter was unhurt. She remains with them, refusing to leave their sides in the hospital.

They have no home to return to, but that is another problem for another time.

"The only thing we had was each other," Wang said. "We encouraged each other to live on, and we said once we got out, we'd live a good life and care for each other. Now we have a new start."

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