Friend and former teaching colleague Lisa Doherty lives and teaches in Mianyang, Sichuan Province in China. On May 12th, she was in her apartment located on the Western Campus of Mianyang Teachers College, when the earthquake hit. This is her account of those first terrifying moments during and after the quake:

“What? What’s that? Earthquake get under the doorway. No, wait, this place will probably come crumbling down.”

That took a few seconds and I was out the door like a shot flying down the stairs close on the heels of my neighbor. There is that space of time when your adrenaline’s flowing and you’re in some strange zone that is acutely focused on surviving.

I ran to the biggest open space – the small track on the campus. Then the chaos was amplified by hundreds of screaming students. I went back to direct them to the open space. The whole time the world shaking as if it was never going to stop. 1 minute…2 minutes… In ‘earthquake time’, my friend says, that is an eternity. And then it stopped.

Fifteen minutes later a big aftershock– then I thought we were done. That turned out to be wrong.
I went around collecting friends, students, colleagues – everyone of them ok. Went outside the school gate to assess the damage. Then, another rumble. It was as if with one collective mind, the hundreds of people in the street, turned, looked at the school, and started running full on directly towards us! I suggested we get back inside. I didn’t survive the earthquake to be trampled to death.

We stayed in and started organizing a makeshift camp on the track–we were spending the night. So we spent time playing cards and talking to students, trying to use cell phones, sitting through the aftershocks. Later we took a walk outside. Everything was shut. The city had turned into a refugee camp. Along every sidewalk, park, public space, the promenade along the river, people had constructed makeshift tents and set up camp outside their homes. In a city of 1 million or more no one slept inside that night.

Except me. I had given out all my camping gear and so figured I’d go sleep on my couch at around 12 midnight. The ground didn’t feel solid. The continuous rumblings made it seem alive. The building felt liquid. Then at 3am there was another big shake and I was out the door. Everyone was up and we started foraging for food. The school sent some steamed bread. I felt lucky that we were in a community. Then, the rain started.

It rained, and rained and …rained. It pretty much looked like we’d be sleeping in it, so people started preparing. I don’t know where the giant pieces of plastic came from but after a while all of the classes and families had constructed makeshift tents and we were officially Jiaoyu Xueyuan (Teacher’s College) Refugee Camp. With everyone crowded together it was very warm and we slept quite well the second night.

The aftershocks are weird and nerve wracking on a number of levels. First, I couldn’t believe that they were still happening five days later (today is Saturday) at a strength that makes the building shake. Second you wonder if another strong one can hit, so everyone remains outside most of the time. Third, we were getting predictions – “today at 12”, “between 1 and 3”, which I couldn’t believe that they were able to do. So that actually added a more nerve wracking element – waiting around for the inevitable shake.

I’ve been to the other campus to spend the days with my students talking and playing cards, etc. to pass the time and take their minds off of it. With some of them we went to the refugee center in Mianyang where all the poor Bechuan survivors have come. We donated clothes and shoes which we had collected and volunteered our services.

Now they say we will have school on Monday. “It’s impossible!” is what my students say. “Your people do things like build the Great Wall and the Three Gorges Dam.” I say. “They will make you do the impossible unless you protest.” We will see what happens. I promised that we will have class outside!


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