This post was a translation from Li Chengpeng’s blog as part of our effort to memorize the tragic earthquake one year ago. The author Li was a sports commentator who later on became active in other public spheres. After the Sichuan earthquake, he went to Beichuan as a reporter as well as a volunteer. As far as I know, this blog post had not been published anywhere other than his blog. However, I find it to be a touching story of the human spirit when faced with such disasters, and the miraculous impact a good conscience may have.
Original title: 北川邓家”刘汉小学”无一死亡奇迹背后的真相 (The truth behind the zero death miracle of the Bei chuan Liu Han Elementary School)
Today, I am not going to write how many died. It pains me to write about these today. Let me talk about miracles. The miracle happens in Liu Han Hope Elementary School of Beichuan. Of all the 483 students, everybody survived. 71 of them spent two days and one night in a journey that took them to Mianyang. On this journey, they climbed three mountains, and went through a dense forest. The greater miracle is, someone built their school, a safe school, which had not collapsed, in these years when we still have the Hope Project (Charity program to sponsor economically disadvantaged students. The Project was later on cancelled). What is behind all this miracle? Had somebody forecasted all of this at first?
I cannot fully restore all the details of Liu Han Hope Elementary School at 14:28, on May 12, 2008. From Deng Lijun’s accounts we know that she has infantile paralysis in her left leg. Because of this illness, she had always been given the privilege of early release before a recess. She can leave ten minutes earlier than the rest of the class so that she can use the bathroom. That day, she dragged her feet down the stairway from the third floor. As soon as she saw the first ray of sunlight, the ground started to shake and roar.
She ran as fast as she could and managed to reach the bamboo grove. And she heard the Physical Education teacher yell: “To the playground!” And she ran to the playground with several other girls. In three minutes, all 483 of the students were on the playground.
Later on, we were thinking how lucky Deng Lijun was to have had her leg problem. If she had not been able to leave ten minutes earlier, she might be pushed down in the rush. She might be so panicked that she would jump from the third floor. Or something else of that nature. In any scenario, we would not have had this kind of perfect miracle of everybody surviving. What is the miracle? The miracle is that in this devastating earthquake has claimed 2000 students from Beichuan Middle School, this elementary school built in the Hope Project remained intact.
Furthermore, nine teachers, with Xiao Xiaochuan as the leader, led 71 students to successfully reached the closest city on foot after two days and one night of hard journey, during which they scaled three mountains, each 2000 meters above sea level. Among them there was a little boy in the Pre-k class. He was not even five years old. Eventually they reached Mianyang City.
Legends of the 71 students braving the mountains and the forest are now known far and wide. During these two days, I have been wandering around in the Beichuan and Mianyang area. I just wanted to dig out more details that would transcend the heroic descriptions so that we can see these people as they really are.
When the earthquake hit, Xiao Xiaochuan was reading in his office. The books were shaking pretty badly. On another side of the building, Shi Shaoxian was patrolling. Both of them are the leaders of the school. As adults they were afraid too, but they managed to stay put and started yelling: “To the playground!” They asked students to go down the floors, go to the playground and later on worked with them to build some makeshift camps. All of these, we found, were exactly what Survival experts would recommend. They have never learned any of these. Their commands were made just out of instinct.
This is not exactly like a journey as described in the movie The Children of Huangshi. Han Han (Translator’s note: young Chinese author) said it was like the herding in zoo migration during WWII. In our conversations, we found these adults were not exactly so brave that they did not have any fear. They had moments of doubt, fear, desperation, numbness, but they persevered. They were not natural heroes, but what they did made them heroes.
( From L to R: Li Shaoxian and Xiao Xiaochuan. Their clothes were new clothes donated by Hanlong Group. Xiao said this is the best clothes he ever had.)
Xiao has talked much in TV stations since then, but he confessed to me in private: “I was so scared then. I thought this is the end of the world. I thought I couldn’t survive this day.” Shi Shaoxian also said he was scared. “No, I couldn’t calm then. I thought I was dying.”
It is still dangerous to crouch down on the playground. Looking below, they found that the town was leveled by the earthquake. There were aftershocks. There were instances of mudslide everywhere. “If we want to live, we must go to high places.” From their observation they found a hill that seemed to be able to survive all the mudslides, etc. So they asked the students to go there. Xiao Xiaochuan had never cut bamboos before, but that day he cut many. Shi Shaoxian went to the ruins and found some sacks that are commonly used by farmers. With these they made a big tent. They had never made a tent before, so what they made was rather small. The 483 students were crowded together, back to back, the whole night. They couldn’t even move.
If someone was watching them in the dark, that must be quite a sight. 483 kids, sitting motionless in a small tent with stones rolling around them, and rain pouring down, and earth still constantly shaking in the aftershocks. The kids were like lamb finding refuge in the rain. And the teachers are like shepherds.
“There was no light. It was pitch dark. I hear big rocks rolling down, making dull sounds like the beating of some drums. That was terror itself!” Later on, kids started to chat. When Deng Lijun told me about this, she was always smiling. She was telling me how kids race downstairs, who stumbled, and who were crying for their mommy. By the way, she said she was proud of her name. (Deng Lijun is also the name of a Hong Kong singer who died years ago.)
Journalist Tang Jianguan had witnessed numerous diasters. He told me people’s reaction in time of disaster is rather different from what we wold imagine. This time I understood what he was talking about. People sometimes need to relieve some of their tension at times of big disasters.
(Taking shelter in a Mingyang middle school after the journey)
I had been wondering why 9 teachers would take 71 students to leave. These 71 students had no parents to claim them. I asked them:”Why don’t you just wait for help?” Later on, we were told: “I understand that the county leaders have to save other people, and probably cannot help us at this time. We must save ourselves.” Nobody argued over the decision to climb the mountains on foot. It was going to be dangerous, but there is greater danger in staying here like this. They’ve got to take a chance.
Their route of retreat includes three mountains, Shuidongzi Mountain, Jinjiashan Mountain, and Yangliuping Mountain. Challenges abound: aftershocks, cracks in the mountains, rain, mountain shock, and great expanses of dense forest.
One woman teacher decided to return for her mother-in-law and people all showed understanding towards her. Another teacher Ms. Wu Mingyan has severe health issue. Her face turned black, and it looked like she was going to die any minute. When people asked how she was doing, she said she was desperate, but “Got to walk on. Cannot die here.” So, they walked on.
After another shock, a strange thing happened. “On the next day, it became completely dark. It was like night. We couldn’t see our own fingers.” They found themselves engulfed by a thick fog. They couldn’t see anybody or anything two meters away. They asked us to forgive them for their superstition, but this was too much like ghosts closing in on them. “It was cold, coldness into our bones.” In the countryside, there were sayings that such things could swallow our souls. After our souls are gone, we’d be dead, they said. Therefore, “we asked kids to call out each others’ name. And we answered each other loudly. We do this not only to embolden ourselves, but also to reassure each other that we are still alive. We need this breath of live to let that ‘thing’ leave our souls alone.”
So there they were, shouting loudly in the dense forest. Their souls were not “snatched” away. After a long time, they emerged out of the fog.
The rest of the mountain road was harder. Locals had a saying: “Never marry your daughter to the Jingjiashan Mountains.” which means the road is so hard to travel that you would not be able to take your daughter to the groom if you travel on such roads. There is another saying called “men cannot go without bamboo sandals”, a special kind of sandals which could keep men from falling off cliffs.
There was also cracks in the mountains. And mud was sliding down. The worst thing is, they couldn’t recognize the roads any more. They were puzzled. “The shape of mountain changed. I remember we should be going uphill here, but why are we going down hill? We were supposed to turn left here, but we found ourselves going up. If we follow the original directions, we’d be all falling off the cliffs.” That night, we found that the same sort of earth movement caused the Himalaya to “grow”.
(The girl in the middle was orphaned in the earthquake. She was holding herself in the dream. Psychologists said that was a sign of insecurity.)
Yesterday we also heard a joke. On the day of the earthquake, two old ladies were chatting near one of the mountains. As they were enjoying their womanly chats, they found that they had to speak very loudly for the other one to hear. They also found that the mountain, which was only a dozen meters away just now, was suddenly a hundred meters away. The earthquake caused such movements. One rescuer also noticed a strange mountain nearby. He asked the local farmer why there was no tree whatsoever on that mountain. The farmer was also puzzled, and then he said: “Indeed, that’s a new mountain. Never saw it before.”
Because the roads are very muddy. Kids keep losing their shoes. Every once in a while, someone shouted he or she lost a shoe or two. Fortunately, no kid was lost, not even the 4-year old. The bigger kids were helping the smaller ones. The teachers helped them find shoes.
During these two days and one night, two bags of cookies and a few bottles of water were all the food and drinks for 71 students and 8 teachers. “How did we cope? We teachers broke a small piece from a cookie at a time. Each student can have one tiny bite. We call it ‘life hanging’ bites. As long as we are still breathing, we can carry on. When kids in front are eating, you could hear the rest of them swallowing their saliva. All of us teachers couldn’t help but cry.” Mr. Xiao Xiaochuan said.
I asked them how they encouraged the students on this journey. “We kept telling them to carry on. Other than this, we had to sometimes tell fanciful stories to them. Most students had never been to Mianyang the big city before. So we kept shouting cheers, keep going, keep going, there were many candies waiting for you there, and bread, and Coke. These were innocent kids. They heard these, and they just ran with hope. We also told them that uncle policemen are waiting for you. Kids knew from the TV they watched that the police were to help and save people. They simply admire them as heros. So they were all running down the mountains.”
It is a shame that two places they passed by actually have the capacity to accommodate these students, but the owners turned them down. For various reasons, I didn’t get the names of these two places.
After they finally reached points of rescue, they didn’t see any candies or ice cream. People were simply too busy rescuing people everywhere.
After two days and one night, these kids finally reached Renjiaping Toll Gate and saw the commanding post for the rescue team. When the mayor of Beichuan asked: “How many of you were still alive?” Xiao Xiaochuan answered: “All of us.” Mr. Jin Dazhong the mayor was shocked: “I had thought that you all were goners.”
That night all kids were simply exhausted, they were all sleeping like logs in the bus that carried them to Mianyang. You couldn’t even wake them up by shaking them. However, when they reached Mianyang, these exhausted kids were all excited. Nobody wanted to go to sleep. For these kids from the mountains, this was their first time to see big city. Though Mianyang itself was all shaken up by the earthquake, kids marveled at its beauty and thought it was like heaven. These kids just came from hell, so everything now seemed like heaven to them.
Yesterday I saw these kids and I found most of them in very good spirits. I asked their teachers why? What is going on here? Mr. Li of the PR department said that they had developed some kind of counseling curriculum for them, including programs such as “diversion of attention exercise, ” “letting out emotions exercise,” “martial arts practice”. They also watch episodes of Tom and Jerry! However, one teacher said these kids haven’t seen many dead people. If they were survivors from Beichuan Middle School where many had died, it would have been much more difficult to recover. I felt warm and proud that these kids were not made to see many dead people in these few days.
(It was too much to dwell on the details of losses, so I decided to praise them for their heroic behavior in the journey. Now the sun is out, you do not have to fear anything anymore. I asked them to say “cheers” and show me their beautiful teeth as I took a picture of them. They all laughed.)
I have not finished my story yet. The core of the story is yet to be revealed. On that day, if Liu Han Elementary School collapsed just like Beichuan No. 1 Middle School, we wouldn’t even have this long march story afterwards. That day, there was no fatality at this school. Not even a severely wounded person. This school’s official name is “Liuhan Hope Elementary School”. Their classroom building was entirely intact. Even the glass wall (more than a dozen meters long and three stories high) was kept intact, not one piece shattered. This is the miracle in this earthquake that had killed hundreds in various schools each. I was wondering who were the builder for this school.
I found that this school was built by a company called “Hanlong Group” (Chinese Dragon, if literally translated). It was a building donated by this company. The boss of this company is a man called Liu Han, and the general manager is “Sun Xiaodong”. The man who supervised the day to day operation in the building was the office manager for the group. When we talked about this miracle later on, we all felt so thankful to this office manager. I interviewed this gentleman, and he told me many stories, but declined to have me use his name, and decline any offer to commend him, because he does not want to cause any noise. So I am referring to him as Mr. X. I talked to Mr. X what was it like when he built this miracle school then. Here is what i found out:
1. Ten years ago, Liu Han and Sun Xiaodong told Mr. X: “When it comes to education, nothing is of small significance. You must ensure the quality of this building. If this building was in some trouble, you are fired.”
2. One of these days ten years ago, Mr. X found some problems in the cement used to build this school. The sand used to mix the cement had too much dirt in it. Mr. X used to be Deputy General Manager of a Cement company, so he knew all about cement. He asked the contractor to wash the dirt off the sand, and get rid of the flat pebbles in the sand. For the perspectives of constructions, such pebbles are bound to have problems, and may cause cement to be weak. Mr. X was enraged. He ordered all the sand to be washed and rid of the dirt. He ordered all these problem pebbles to be picked away.
3. In one progress meeting, Mr. X asked why the project deadline couldn’t be met, he found that the head of the contractor was looking a little ill at ease. At his inquiry, Mr. X found from him that the pledged donation did not come. Based on the donation procedures, company donations must first go to the local government. The local government then earmark the money to the contractor. Unfortunately the contractor had not been able to get the money in time (this is the so-called “customary Chinese practice.”) Mr. X was enraged again, and he hunted out the donation till all needed fund was in place.
4. At the groundbreaking ceremony, the project team informed there is going to be a delay again. Mr. X was very angry, again. He went to the government office dealing with this, and he simply argued with them. Eventually, on September 19, the school had a beautiful playground for students to use. Mr. X said he was very happy about this playground. This playground turned out to be a life saver in the earthquake.
During this construction period, people always heard of Mr. X quarreling or getting all fired up or simply pestering people for the pledged money. When I tried to confirm these with him, he asked me to put quotations marks around “quarreling”, because that would cause unnecessary troubles for him. He said, you know, I cannot say too much.
I probably should not say too much either. People thought it was a miracle in itself that Mr. X can manage to get all the money for the pledge Hope Project donations to build such a school.
Since Mr. X declined to get any attention, let me share the names of the others who were involved in building this miracle school. These are: 刘汉、孙晓东、肖晓川、史少先、陈世荣，罗中会，母贤莹，沈长树，赵义辉，母广兰，吴明艳。
Just now, Mr. X sent me a text message which I took the liberty to publish in my blog. I just want to share it with other people who would be involved in something like this in the future:
Sorry to bother you. I can responsibly tell you that all five “Hope Project” schools were built under my supervision. None of them was shaken in the earthquake. All teachers and students were safe. You are welcome to Mianyang anytime!
This miracle survival story showed me one thing: when you are building a house 10 years ago, you cared to think what might happen 10 years later. That’s what the miracle was all about.