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Shaken to his foundations

Scale of China's disaster makes an imprint on a reporter

May 29, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEICHUAN, CHINA — Images run through my mind when I'm brave enough to let them in like the click-click of an old slide projector. The body of the security guard five days after the quake, his keys still on his belt, his uniform and badge struggling to lend some dignity to his bloated corpse. The body of the student, a boy slightly older than my son, his sneakers battered, his shirttail out.

Like most people, I move through life clinging to a few assumptions that give me a modest sense of control. That the floor and walls around me will hold. That my loved ones will die of old age. That my life has meaning.

Many of these comforts were blown apart over the last two weeks of covering the Sichuan earthquake, a staggering natural disaster that left more than 67,000 people dead. How do you absorb the random nature of death on such a scale, so many thousands of children buried alive in schools meant to nurture their energetic bodies and soaring spirits?

Friends sometimes question the sanity of being a journalist, and particularly a foreign correspondent. When everyone else is running away from danger, reporters head toward it. Shortly after the magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit May 12, this was the drill: racing to the airport, somehow managing to get a seat on a full plane, landing in Chongqing and driving all night to reach a school where 900 students were buried, all in time for deadline.

This quickly morphed into a blur of 19- to 21-hour days filled with blank stares, terrifying aftershocks and displaced people driven temporarily mad by despair.

In the rush, you didn't have a whole lot of time to think very deeply about what you were seeing. There was too much to do, too many editor demands, too many logistics problems. Somewhere on the flight down from Beijing to Chongqing, between the in-flight service and touchdown, the psychological flak jacket went on.

Around day three or four, though, you started thinking about the intrusion you represented as a foreigner asking deeply personal questions about love and loss of those coping with undreamed-of suffering.

On the road to Hanwang, a middle-aged man paced back and forth atop a mound of rubble watching a machine slowly tear away giant chunks of concrete from the pile. The object of everyone's attention and anguish was his wife of 24 years, buried in the remains of the house they'd built together. Hoping against hope that she was still alive, he'd been waiting three days by this time, some spent digging with his own hands.

He wore a straw hat against the strong Sichuan sun and would now and again retreat under a tree, where relatives would comfort him, before climbing back atop the mound to look for a sign of her. All around lay bits of their ruined life, shards of their furniture, dented aluminum pans, the tattered Chinese New Year banner on the doorpost.

Finally her lifeless body was uncovered. It was not where the family expected to find her. I realized with horror that I probably had been among the rescue workers and reporters who had inadvertently stood on her remains.

Yet throughout the excruciating wait, Tan Keren, 50, and his close relatives shared their memories of a woman who had been the bedrock of the family, hoping perhaps to bring her alive in spirit if not in person. Her quiet confidence. How she rarely spoke, but when she did it was with wisdom and eminent good judgment. The quiet pride she'd taken in raising their only son, now in law school, who still welcomed her advice even though she hadn't gotten very far in school.

This was the pattern, almost without exception. Not only were victims who'd lost everything willing to talk, they even at times sought me out. With everything broken around them and so many of their friends and neighbors overwhelmed by problems of their own, many seemed to hunger for someone who would listen to their story and validate what they had been through.

The enormity of this disaster was particularly evident in Beichuan, which was cut off for several days by landslides and washed out roads.

After hiking, hitching motorcycle rides and working our way past boulders, aid trucks and fleeing people, we reached a spot where the view suddenly opened on the most pronounced devastation I've seen in my life. The analogy of an enraged child smashing a model city with jack boots is apt but pales against the reality.

To descend into that idyllic valley was to witness an act of violence by an angry god. The 15-story buildings at angles that mock human engineering. The buried streets and addresses meant to define our identity, our spot on the orderly grid, a sense that we matter.

And then this thought: How quickly and furiously we humans would race to rebuild this, mostly because people need homes but also to push back the darkness and the chaos that we find so utterly threatening.

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