6 seconds of disaster

It was a normal afternoon for the Chinese in Sichuan Province. Schools, offices, roads and all spheres of existence were bustling with life as almost everybody had settled at their work stations after lunch break.

The clock is ticking and unbeknownst to about 87, 000 people, the time marking to their end on earth is nigh. At exactly 14:08:01 on May 12, 2008, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake, hit one of China’s south-western provinces. But these are not the only figures of how devastating the earthquake was as nearly 40, 000 were injured.

Pieces of remains of vehicles and bicycles that hit by the earthquake

When a group of African journalists set out from the province’s capital, ChengDu City to the epicentre of the earthquake, Yingxiu Town, in Wenchuan County, perhaps they had no idea of the impact that calamity brought on the Asian giant and its people.  

Arguably, to them it was a trip to appreciate and review reconstruction efforts being carried out by the Chinese government, nine years after the disaster.

Not even the huge rocks and boulders littered in and on riverbeds were enough signal of a tale of how disastrous the calamity was and it’s trail. After all, the over two hours journey on road was mostly through rugged terrains and mountains which are characterised with meandering rivers and streams.

Chinese flag stands tall among ruins of a school that was affected by the earthquake

As such, it seemed normal to see bear huge scars left by disintegrating earth. All this, most thought, was as a result of heavy rains, not until the group arrived at the 5.12 Memorial Hall, the first stop.

The name 5.12 represents the date the disaster struck and the museum holds information and relics of how extensive the earthquake was in the entire province, including other affected towns of Wenchuan and Beichuan.

As the journalists gathered in the front hall of the museum, the tour guide, Xi explains, “The museum is segmented into different sections; front, mourning, disaster, memorial, rebuilding and experience halls. All depictions in the memorial hall are based on actual events that occurred during and after the earthquake,” she said through an interpreter.

Reality Check

As the group of journalists who are generally loud strode into the halls, the only sound heard was that of footsteps. The magnitude of the disaster is sinking in. It was actually too much to bear for the translator, Huang Wen as he battled tears and emotions while explaining about real pictures of the devastating catastrophe, plastered on the wall of the mourning hall.

The hall helps one to understand and learn about the great spirit of disaster relief shown in this area.

However, a second more in the hall would have been more tormenting to Wen as he could not go past through a sentence in his translation.

The group silently straddled out of the hall to a passage where wreckages of vehicles and bicycles that were reduced to pieces as a result of the earthquake, lie.

Hope oozes in the disaster hall as the place is littered with pictures of the rescue efforts undertaken. One learns how difficult the rescue operation was as the relief efforts were hampered by mostly roads being reduced to a rubble.

The Chinese armed forces used boats and helicopters to reach out to the impassable areas. As if bewitched, landsides, floods wreaked havoc in Wenchuan County further debilitating rescue efforts. The last stray was when due to fog, one of helicopters crashed with 18 people rescued from the earthquake and four crew members. “They all died,” explained Xi.

As if saving the best for last, the journalists were taken to the memorial hall. It has a simulation room, where people “experience” the earthquake on a simulator, while viewing a made up video imitating the destruction that took place.

As the suspended simulator vibrated and shook hard, it brought the earthquake alive in the minds. The more it pulsates, the more one easily feels shaken by the experience.

To cap it up, the video shows people desperately trying to save their lives, cars being flung off bridges, multi-storey buildings collapsing to fragments, trees mercilessly falling on vehicles, overheard roads disintegrating into a rubble and mountains of soil subduing houses.

Out of the museum, for the first time since converging in Beijing for the 2017 China Africa Press Centre program in February, no journalist was interested in taking pictures.

They all rushed to the buses and down the escarpments, the group arrived at the second port of call; Xuankou Middle School.

The school that became a shrine

The first object that greets people as soon as they enter the old school’s gate is a monumental clock, sits on a stairwell, marking the time the earthquake struck.

Four floors of one building sunk in the earth as the earthquake, felt 1 700 kilometres away, hit the school. Only one floor of the building, which sunk down with 19 students and two teachers, is visible.  They remain buried in the rubble.

Another building, a dormitory, the whole first floor is lowered into the earth. It is so heart-breaking and haunting because of how the ruins stand. They look like a piece of paper, merely pushed forward or backward and sunk in the earth.

This is because the buildings fell in different directions signalling the power of the earthquake as it shook the ground and wreaked havoc from all directions.

All ruins of the school sit at a precarious angle. There were 1500 pupils studying there on the day of the earthquake; 55 died.

Nine years on, the crumpled school’s ruins remain preserved not just as a shrine but as actual memorial to the disaster, while almost every other sign of the quake has been erased.

All these are the effects of the quake that shook the area just for 6 seconds.

A distance away, the Shuimo village, the last stop of the tour is active with normal life. Full of new homes with friezes painted in strong Tibetan colours.

“Buildings are now made of technology like rubber cushions to withstand effects of earthquakes. Public places like schools can survive 10.0 earthquake while houses it’s 9.0. New buildings now have basements that go down to 10 metres, also as a precautionary measure,” explained our new tour guide.

As the journalists headed back to ChengDu, I couldn’t stop looking back and appreciating the tremendous changes that have taken place after such a catastrophe.

It downed on me that Yingxiu is a town rising from the ashes but those 6 seconds of disaster, will forever be remembered by many. 


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