China earthquake: Survival in the midst of school tragedy

May 26, 2008 06:10 AM EDT
On May 12th 2008 at about 2:30pm, 9-year-old Li Yao and her family experienced the most terrible day in their life.
Li Yao (9) shares her story with a World Vision staff member in Sichuan province. (World Vision)

On May 12th 2008 at about 2:30pm, 9-year-old Li Yao and her family experienced the most terrible day in their life.

"It was a nightmare," said Li Yao's mum, a 39-year-old woman living in Hongbai Township of Shifang City in the northern part of Sichuan Province, one of the worst hit areas in the 7.8 Richter's scale earthquake.

Like every other day, Little Li Yao had gone to school with her friends after having lunch at home. Soon after the lesson started, they heard a kind of low frequency noise from underneath the ground, followed by serious shaking of the whole building. Li Yao rushed to the door screaming with other children.

Right at that moment, Li Yao felt a big push by someone from behind her back. By the time she realized what was happening, she found herself lying in the courtyard on the ground floor. She had fallen from the third floor, with the whole three-story school building collapsing into debris behind her.

Li Yao was found in the debris by her parents who survived and rushed from their ruined home to her school. Her clothes were covered in blood when she was pulled out, but miraculously she had only minor injuries, including scratches on the left side of her face and legs where she had landed.

The disaster had not only destroyed Li Yao's school, but also made the family homeless. Not even a piece of cloth could be taken out from their collapsed home.

Huddling together, Li Yao and her family sat under a tree throughout the night. "It got quite dark soon after the shock, and started to rain. Many houses collapsed, survivors were crying and calling names of their family, trying to dig out their members from the ruined buildings".

Thinking of that horrible night, Li Yao's mum couldn't help but burst out with crying. "I have never experienced such a dark night, the earth kept shaking, crying and shouting never stopped in the whole night".

What appeared after daybreak was even more devastating: Hongbai Township, once very prosperous, was now a ruined place with debris where buildings had once stood.

The town hospital was also seriously damaged. In front of its collapsing gate were long lines of injured people waiting for medical aid.

There was no water, no electricity, and no food in the town. The only highway linking the town and the outside had also been seriously damaged. Li Yao's family decided to walk out of the mountains to seek help together with their relatives who also survived.

On their way out, they saw many collapsed houses and bodies dug out from the ruins being lined up by road sides. Blood mixed with rain water flowed onto the road.

Every time they saw such a scene, Li Yao's parents would cover the little girl's eye to hide the tragedy.

After two hours of tough walk in the mud and rain, the exhausted family was picked up by a relief truck and taken finally to the temporary shelter at Shifang City.

School tragedy revealed

There were more than 300 pupils in the primary school Li Yao used to study in. More than 200 of them were killed with some children still missing. In Li Yao's classroom on the third floor only 7, whose seats were near the door, were found alive after the quake.

"If not for their teacher's pushing them out of the door, none of them would have survived," said Li Yao's mother, crying. "The teacher herself was buried in the ruin. She has a four-month-old baby to feed. My God, now that baby has lost her mum! Please remember the name of that woman - she was called Yang Hong, 23 years old!"

There were more than 1,000 quake-affected victims being housed in the temporary shelter center set up by Shifang City government. During May 13th to 15th, another 16 shelter centers had been set up by the government in Shifang.

While visiting the shelter center, World Vision staff bought child-friendly kits (containing simple stationery and toys) to the children. Watching World Vision staff taking out new toys from the kit, Li Yao's face slowly eased and a touch of smile even appeared in her eyes.

By the time World Vision staff left the center, Li Yao and other children in her room had gathered in a corner to share the toys.

"I like the cartoon notebook most," said Li Yao with smile, "I will write diaries on it".

What would Li Yao write in her diary, about the nightmare she has just experienced?