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12-year-old quake survivor feels lucky

The tremor was a 7.9-magnitude event
May 17, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
As Huang Siyu ran down the stairs of her school after the powerful earthquake, the building collapsed and her teacher was killed. A chunk of falling debris crushed the fifth grader's left leg, and her schoolmates dragged her to safety. "I was so scared," said the willowy 12-year-old, who tried to be cheerful in her hospital bed Saturday though her parents were still missing after Monday's earthquake.

Siyu is among the millions of survivors scarred by China's deadliest earthquake in three decades. The monster 7.9 tremor was so strong that it could felt thousands of miles away.

The fear gradually faded in Beijing and other cities, but the nightmare was just starting for Siyu, who came from one of the worst hit towns.

Siyu, who likes math but wants to be a fashion consultant when she grows up, recalled how a class of first graders was buried in her collapsed school and waited for rescue in Yingxiu, a town in Wenchuan county, the quake's epicenter.

"One little boy in the first grade was really brave. His name was Zhou Yuyan," she said. "When he and his friends were trapped, before they were rescued, he sang a song to comfort them. He sang 'Two Tigers"' - a popular children's tune.

State-run media reported only 100 out of 447 students and teachers survived at the school.

The quake and the landslides it triggered knocked out mountain roads and phone service to Yingxiu, cutting off the town. Heavy rains hampered helicopter flights. Siyu waited two days to be flown to the West China Hospital in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where most of the serious cases were taken.

The flight to Chengdu was Siyu's first ride in an aircraft, but it left her with no special impression. "I didn't feel like I was flying," she said. "I was in so much pain."

Siyu - whose name translates as "thoughtful rain" - underwent surgery Wednesday to complete the amputation of her leg.

Millions of other people living near the epicenter suffered much the same misery and danger in a large swathe of Sichuan, a rugged southwestern province that's sometimes called the "Texas of China" because of its enormous size and location.

Factories were flattened, apartment buildings became piles of rubble and dams threatened to burst and flood vast areas already devastated by the quake. Homeless people left cities and towns in droves, while tent camps popped up along roads and in parks.

Tens of thousands of troops with shovels and little else were mobilized for often futile rescues and searches for the dead, and by Saturday, the rescue effort had burgeoned to almost 150,000 soldiers and police, using hundreds of heavy earth-moving machines to cut through the debris. The government says it expects a final death toll of at least 50,000.

"My mother was buried for five days before they recovered her body. Five days!" said Chen Xiaofeng, a 44-year-old high school teacher, as he left the crematorium in the hard-hit city of Dujiangyan, north of Chengdu.

The crematorium chimneys belched black smoke all day as bodies were delivered by flatbed trucks, vans and three-wheel motorcycle carts. A man with a large can of disinfectant strapped to his back sprayed down the bodies as they passed through the crematorium's massive stone gate decorated with carvings of the Buddha and dragons.

The disaster was yet another big, unexpected challenge for China in an already difficult year. The country's leaders would like to just focus on one of the nation's most prestigious projects - the staging of the Beijing Olympics less than three months away. But in recent months, the communist leadership has been distracted by unrest in Tibet and protests that dogged the Olympic torch relay overseas.

Soon after the quake hit, Premier Wen Jiabao jetted off to the quake zone. Wen, a grand-fatherly, empathetic figure, made special stops at demolished schools, where many of the victims died. The government has said nearly 6,900 schoolrooms collapsed, fueling anger among many Chinese who suspect shoddy construction pushed up the death toll. For many families, the dead child was their only offspring - a tragic side-effect of China's "one-child" family planning policy.

Three days after her operation, Siyu sat propped up with pillows in her hospital bed in a room shared with two other child quake survivors. Two hospital volunteers sat at her side and kept her chatting and laughing with games and a simple art project using crayons to color a fish and a cat.

"I like dogs better than cats because a dog really cares about you," she said. "A dog can save your life."

She likes to have her hair braided and twisted into a bun pinned on the side of her head. When her catheter leaked and soaked her pajamas with urine, she looked horrified and began to cry. She used to ask constantly where her parents were, her caretakers said, but not so much anymore.

When the nurses brought her bowls of dumplings and rice, she uttered a meek, "Thank you."

Throughout the hospital, residents of Chengdu who wanted somehow to help - a kindergarten teacher, a hairstylist and a child psychologist among them - were handed hospital badges and deployed to keep Siyu and the other injured company.

Although she lost her leg, Siyu said she feels fortunate. After lunch, she stared at the patient across from her bed and noted the boy's head was wrapped with a white thick bandage.

"Look, he hurt his head, so I feel lucky," she said. "When the roof caved in, I put my hands and arms over my head and protected it."

 

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