Traumatic earthquake spurred many to volunteer or become soldiers and firefighters themselves
Earlier this year, Zheng Haiyang returned to Beichuan Qiang autonomous county in Sichuan province, one of the areas worst hit during the Wenchuan earthquake 15 years ago, which claimed the lives of 69,227 people.
In addition to running an orchard, the 31-year-old, who lost both legs during the earthquake, has also planted a tree in the ruins of the county seat. "For me, it's a demonstration of the power of life and it helps me focus on the future, not past," he said.
When the magnitude-8 earthquake struck at 2:48 pm on May 12, 2008, Zheng, then a senior high school student at Beichuan Middle School, was in class. The school buildings quickly collapsed, and he was trapped between broken floor slabs as he tried to escape.
After nearly 22 hours under the rubble, Zheng was rescued but had to have both legs amputated. "Many of my classmates didn't make it, so I am the lucky one," he said. The earthquake killed 15,645 and left 4,311 missing in Beichuan alone.
Zheng said that he has been through a lot during the past 15 years. "I have been looked down upon, discriminated against and even deceived, but those things are all trivial because I've already experienced the darkest hours of my life."
As more than 93 percent of the buildings in the former Beichuan county seat, which is nestled in a mountain valley, collapsed or were damaged, the central government decided to start from scratch in a new location. Construction of the new town of Beichuan began in June 2009 about 23 kilometers from its original location, and was completed three years later. The ruins of old Beichuan have since been preserved as a memorial to the earthquake.
The new county seat is modern and apartment and commercial buildings are being built as it continues to develop and expand. Visitors may only realize the town was completely rebuilt when they see Rebirth Square, which has a monument with the same name in its center to commemorate the efforts the entire country poured into search and rescue missions.
"As time goes by, I think that most Beichuan residents have stepped out of the shadow of the earthquake, and begun to focus on the future ahead. But many people still don't want to talk about it. For me, it's impossible to forget the earthquake because it has changed my life forever," Zheng said.
Like most Beichuan residents, he usually avoids going to the former location of the county seat. But once a year, just before the anniversary of the earthquake, he pays the ruins a visit to mourn classmates, friends and loved ones.
The moment his car reaches the road leading into the former town, Zheng turns the music off. "It's so sad to see the Beichuan where my friends and I had so much fun, in ruins," he said, adding that his home is now submerged beneath a lake created by the quake. "For visitors, it's a tourist site but for us, it's packed with grief."
He normally lays flowers on a green behind the remains of a building marked with the date of the earthquake. Many people are buried under the green because it was impossible to transport bodies out at the time, as roads were severely damaged.
Behind it, there is a flag post and a basketball stand. They are all that remains of Maoba Middle School, which was crushed beneath huge boulders that tumbled down from the mountains during the 80-second quake, burying students and teachers inside.
For the past fifteen years, Cheng Xingfeng, mother of a missing 16-year-old student at the school, has been putting up banners in front of its remains that express how much she misses her son. She includes her cellphone number on the banners, just in case her son didn't die, and comes back to the town one day. They have brought tears to the eyes of many visitors.
"Look how many layers of banners there are now. It will only get thicker," Zheng said.
Meanwhile, the former site of Beichuan Middle School, where Zheng was rescued, has been used to build a memorial museum. "I often have dreams in which my classmates say they are tired of traveling, so they have come back to see me. I really like those dreams because they give me the chance to see my friends again."
Zheng now runs an orchard and plans to sell his fruits online. He said he is living a happy life because he is regularly able to see his parents and girlfriend, who he plans to marry at the end of the year. Business is looking good, too. "I don't want to dwell on the past. Instead, I want to become stronger because of the quake. I believe my friends who lost their lives would want to see me living life to the full," he said.
Unlike Beichuan, Yingxiu township in Wenchuan county and the epicenter of the quake, was rebuilt at its original location, but residents say that only a few hundred meters of the road are as they were before the devastating event, which destroyed over 80 percent of the buildings and killed 5,462 people.
"I would never have imagined that the township could recover in such a short time and become this beautiful after seeing the way the earthquake ruined it," Ma Qiongxia said over a cup of tea at a local tea house.
The 58-year-old was trapped under the remains of her house after it collapsed, with only her head and one hand free from the rubble. "I have only been able to think about what happened calmly in recent years. It's true that time is the best cure, people have finally started to move on."
Seven villages and a community were rebuilt from scratch within three years. All the houses are now quake-proof, and capable of withstanding a magnitude-8 earthquake.
When Ma moved to her new house in 2010, 53-year-old He Kairong became her new neighbor.
During the earthquake, He's house near the banks of the Minjiang, collapsed into the river and she had to scramble back to the riverbank as large stones fell from the mountains. "Many children died in their schools, including my niece and nephew. This is the most painful thing to have happened to Yingxiu, until today," He said.
After being made homeless by the quake, the two women both found temporary accommodation in a shelter put up by disaster relief forces, among them the People's Liberation Army and firefighters. In the face of such tragedy, they were traumatized and depressed.
"The volunteers at the shelter noticed that we were not in a healthy mental state, so they comforted us, telling us that things would only get better because the whole country was helping. Their actions helped us get through tough times," Ma said. "That was also when I first learned about the idea of volunteering."
After Ma and He settled in their new homes, they decided to start their own team of volunteers in Yingxiu to help others in need. It now has over 60 members, mostly women, and is headed by Ma. The group has taken part in a series of disaster relief projects since it was founded in 2013.
"We know exactly how people affected by disasters feel, and what they need, so it's natural that we offer our help whenever we can, and we try our best," Ma said.
In addition to the volunteers, the PLA soldiers and firefighters who worked tirelessly amid the danger to rescue people, have also left lasting memories, He said.
"Many children who experienced the earthquake grew up determined to join the PLA or become firefighters. My son is one of them," she said proudly.
Zhang Zili, from the neighboring county of Maoxian, is another.
He was attending a sports class at the primary school in his village when the quake struck. He was six at the time. "My village is only 30 kilometers from the epicenter of the Wenchuan earthquake, so it caused a lot of damage," the 21-year-old said.
Zhang's home was unsafe to live in, so his family stayed in a temporary shelter. "There was no electricity because of the quake, so we had to sit in the dark at night. I was scared. The PLA soldiers who came to help us comforted me by teaching me songs and playing with me," he said.
He also recalled how emergency supplies were airdropped from helicopters, and how soldiers and firefighters built tents and gave food to survivors.
"These memories made me want to become a PLA soldier or a firefighter, so that I could also save lives and help people," said Zhang who is now a firefighter with the Wenchuan Brigade of the Forest Fire Fighting Detachment of Sichuan's Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture.
After a magnitude-6.8 earthquake hit Luding county in Sichuan's Garze Tibetan autonomous prefecture on Sept 5 last year, the brigade was immediately summoned to take part in the search and rescue mission. It was Zhang's first earthquake-related mission.
"As we approached the epicenter, I saw that houses had been destroyed and people were homeless. The sight triggered memories of the Wenchuan earthquake. I know how scary and tough it can be, so I was determined to do my best to help," he said.
During a search and rescue operation in Wandong village, which is halfway up a mountain, Zhang found a grandmother and a 2-month-old baby sitting by the ruins of their house. The baby's mother and grandfather had been severely injured, and were later airlifted by helicopter to hospital.
With the road to the outside world cut off, Zhang had to help the grandmother and the baby reach safety via a rescue route that the brigade had opened up.
"The baby's head had been bruised during the earthquake, but his injuries were not serious. His grandmother had not eaten for a day and was weak, so I held him carefully. He soon fell asleep and did not wake up until we crossed the river and reached safety," Zhang said.
A photo of him tenderly holding the baby went viral on social media. People noticed the word "Wenchuan" on his left armband, which indicated that he was from the Wenchuan Brigade, and he was lovingly dubbed "Wenchuan Brother".
"I think people were touched because they were glad that people affected by the Wenchuan earthquake were back on their feet, and can now take on the responsibility of helping others," he said. "Although 15 years have passed, we have never forgotten the help we got back then."
Gou Qi, Zhang's team leader, said that the ability of fire departments to search for survivors after earthquakes has significantly improved over the past 15 years.
"Unlike the search and rescue teams that depended on manual labor and simple tools to rescue people in 2008, we are now better equipped and trained than ever," Gou said.
Although Zhang's daily schedule is packed with training sessions, including ways to break into collapsed houses and fight wildfires, he hopes he never has to put his skills to use. "I was only a child during the Wenchuan earthquake, but now I have grown up, so when disasters happen, I won't let the people down."
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