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My First Two Days at Wen Chuan Earthquake, China

11:50, May 14, 2008

Since the Wen Chuan Earthquake,  I have received many inquiries from friends and colleagues asking my situation. First, I am doing fine with a little inconvenience. Second, I think it could be a first hand report from Chengdu to all the people around the world. Here is my own personal experience of the first two days.

Note: while writing this short article, I am still experiencing several aftershocks briefly. I will go outside very soon to set my mind at peace.

The Moment

Around 2:28 pm on May 12, 2008, I was in the middle of a conference call with colleagues from Australia, India, Singapore and Shanghai. All of sudden, I noticed the walls were making strange noises. Considering we are in a construction zone, or entire China is in the same situation, I thought that could be caused by some big machines. No, after a few seconds, it didn’t disappear. From my earthquake engineering training background during my Master degree, I realized that it was an earthquake.

After yelling to the speaker phone to tell my colleagues on the phone “We have an earthquake in Chengdu”, I quickly hid myself under my desk, while the others were still talking on the phone. For at least over one minute (later on, I read the record of the earthquake wave, it lasted more than three minutes), the whole building was shaking and shaking and shaking. I experienced earthquakes while I was studying in Japan, and even stepped on top of an earthquake simulator. But I never experienced such a big and long lasting earthquake. My direct instinct told me it must be at five to six Richter Scale.

While the building is shaking, I was asking myself, what am I going to do, how worst the earthquake could be, is the building going to collapse… Fortunately, it stopped. Yes, it stopped. I quickly got out of my desk and ran to the door. Along the way, I noticed that there was nobody on the office floor; I might be the last one left. Some ceiling fixtures fell. The fire exit door was widely open. The plastic safety cover on the floor indicated somebody must knocked it off by force. Some plasters in the stair well fell as well.

After got out of the first floor door, to my horror, there is still a long 75 meter overpass to go through with water on both sides. Considering the unpredictable nature of an earthquake, I want to be at open space as fast as possible. But now I have to walk through this whole connection covered with tons of concrete slabs above my head. It could fall anytime during an aftershock. What a stupid architect. Why he designed an emergency exit with a long path to a safe open space?

I am working at the Tianfu Software Park, about 10 KM south of Chengdu center. Overall, there must be more than five thousands of people working here. Now you can see all the people in the open space. Some of my colleagues ran with their bare feet, others with socks but no shoes. We all got out safely. Nobody got hurt. For a few minutes, I was walking around to talk with them and see how everybody is doing. Surprisingly, people are all in a high spirit, although you can still see the shocks remaining in their faces.

First things first, I put a call to my parents in Shanghai and asked them to turn on the TV to find out how severe this earthquake is. They tuned to Phoenix TV in Hong Kong, it was still broadcasting a comedy. What, there was no news about this big event? I asked them to leave it on. Later on, I learned from a friend that the TV station was not allowed to announce this news. Although the Phoenix is the largest Chinese language TV station outside of China, and registered in Hong Kong, its strong tie with the Chinese government made it only a half way to a free press. The instruction of the censor was to promote Olympic Games in Beijing, and don’t cover any negative news. The earthquake is definitely a negative news, it made Chinese central government lose its face. What a stupid logic it is.

Without much choice, I turned to CNN through my Blackberry. The CNN Mobile News said there was a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in western China according to US Geological Survey. Minutes later, it changed to 7.5 in central China. Now I got the truth. We are experiencing a large scale of earthquake in China.

On September 11, 2001, I watched entire event on a live TV in Philadelphia when terrorists attached World Trade Center in New York City. On August 14, 2003, I was in New York City when it got a blackout (a massive widespread power outage), and slept on the basement floor of the Sheraton Towers Hotel. Now, this is another life time event I am experiencing.

The Quake

On April 23, 2008, I started my three day photo trek with Adrian, a colleague from work. Our route started from Chengdu, went through Du Jiang Yan (), Yin Xiu , Wen Chuan , Mao Xian , Yu Ba Du , and to Ka Long Gou . It is about 350 KM driving distance. On the way back, we stayed one night in Mao Xian. The pictures from this trip can be seen at

Nineteen days later, the earthquake with magnitude 7.8 hit the region, with epicenter located at Wen Chuan, about 97 KM north of Chengdu (see picture below). The communications to both Wen Chuan and Mao Xian were still not available at the time of writing. I could hardly imagine if this earthquake happened on April 23, I could be one of the victims, either being buried under the mud, or hit by falling rocks, or being trapped on a highway without knowing when the road will be opened again.


The First Night

After staying in the open space for a while, we decided it was a time to leave the office area and heading back home. It was about 4:30 pm.

To my surprise, not only the traffic was running smoothly, even buses were in service. Four colleagues and I boarded No. 501 bus and headed towards the city. Along the road, we were still seeing many people staying outside of their buildings. The road was congested the same as rush hours. Not worse. People were calm.

After getting off the bus, we bought ten bottles of water first from a street vendor. We decided to find a restaurant to have an early dinner first. No restaurants within our sights were open. All employees were gone. We need to prepare a foodless night now.

We went to Adam’s apartment complex first. A lot of people were sitting in the open space. A big crowd was gathering in front of a TV to get the latest news. As we walked to the front of the building, we noticed many mosaics laid on the ground, along with a large piece of wood plate. They got off from the building surface when the building was in motion. Imaging, if all of those window air-condition units got loose, what a disaster it could be. They all like bombs from the sky, millions of them in a city. Later on, we noticed one of those units fell in another apartment complex. Hope nobody got hurt.

Knowing we cannot get a warm meal anymore, we need a safe place to go. We went to sit at the patio of “Peter’s Tex and Mex Grill” restaurant, one of my frequent spots in the neighborhood. This is one of the restaurant frequented by many foreigners for its 95% authentic (my scale) Mexican style food. The owners are very polite. They didn’t mind we sat there, and apologized they could not provide any food for us. Eventually we gathered around 11 colleagues and friends and a dog with us. Baobao, the dog, barked strangely this morning like a wolf. He could sense something is coming but just had a hard time to communicate this to us.

To prepare a long night, Adam and I walked in the neighborhood to search for food. The big supermarket CarreFour was closed, so as many other shops. We walked around and found two convenient stores were still open with long queues at check-outs. We went in and bought enough junk food, like dry meat, nuts, sunflower seeds, etc.

In the several hours before 11 pm, we were sitting there, talking about the news learnt from the radio. The death toll kept on climbing, from several hundreds, to four thousands, to eight thousands. The situation of the epicenter Wen Chuan was still unclear to the authority. Fortunately, in the city of Chengdu, there were no shortages of electricity or water. No rise of the food price. Things were calm.

It was getting chilly toward midnight. Eight of us went to an outdoor restaurant to get a grilled fish. It was delicious. Although the government announced that it was safe to go indoors, and the aftershocks should no more than six in magnitude, we put a big question mark on it. But it was getting cold, and rain was coming. We finally decided to stay at Adam’s place, since it is on the first floor and we could get out very fast in case another earthquake comes.

On the road, we saw many people camping outside, or just slept on the street walkways. We were all prepared to experience the first night after the earthquake.


The Second Day

At around 4 am, we felt a strong aftershock. Since it was quite brief, we didn’t get up and rush out. Get enough sleep as we can. Who knows what is ahead of us.

In the morning, I took a taxi to the office to retrieve my keys, computer and car. On the road, the traffic was light. Some cars parked along the road in an open space. Obviously, some people slept in their cars last night to be on the safe side.

Several colleagues were there. We got a special permission to go upstairs to get our belongings. We saw the building inspectors were at work to ensure the building is in a good standing. In addition, we noticed a huge crack on the over pass between two buildings (B3 and B5) across the walk way.

I came back to my apartment. There are cracks on the walls, both in the stair wells and my rooms. All my CD’s were on the floor now. The CD rack was 10 cm away from the wall. One of my vases fell to the floor and broken. My tools are spreaded everywhere from the box. Besides these, no major damages I could see. I quickly took a shower.

Right in the middle of eating my lunch, I got a call from Kai and asked me to get outside immediately. From the official channel, we were warned that between noon to five o’clock, there could be strong aftershocks. I left my apartment with half full stomach right away. For the entire afternoon, we were sitting in the car while it was raining outside.

Besides buying more foods, it was a calm afternoon. More shops are open now, including CarreFour. Some brave colleagues went back to their apartments to make up the sleep. I got two live interviews by the phone from a TV station and a radio station in Hong Kong to talk about my personal experience during these two eventful days.

Nine of us had our dinner at a restaurant, the first warm meal since the earthquake. We were all in the good mood and appreciated the food we could get, while thinking about those still suffering in the remote areas.

To be safe, I decided to sleep on my car in the open space. Although nothing happened, I think it worth all the inconvenience to do the right things at this critical time. By side of my cars, there are big BMW and small QQ cars, with passengers slept in the car. In front of the God, we are equal :-).

Moving Forward

Just heard from TV, the military rescuers had reached Wen Chuan. Probably 30,000 more people are dead there. In the mean time, our office building inspection report is out. The building is safe and the elevator is in operation again.

Hope our life will be back to normal soon.

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  • George: Thank you for sharing your first hand account of the earthquake – it was a terrific piece of journalism. I am relieved that you made it through this ordeal; your sharing this with us brings home the human side of the episode.
    (George was my SAP “point of contact” for our users group in an earlier happier time)
  • Thank you for posting, we’ve not had a lot of contact with our members from China so finally hearing from some and that they are OK as well as those around them is a relief!

    We are here for you, let us know if we can help!

  • Hey George,

    sharing your article with the SDN community is a great idea! I think the photo impressions from your trip to help victims of the earthquake would also be very interesting for many SDN followers.


  • While reading your encounter with earthquake, i felt i was going thrrough it. A terrific peice of first hand information. I’m so happy you are ok. If there is anything we can do, please let us know. Take care…