A First Hand Account of the Big Shake | Up Bear Creek
by Art Goodtimes
May 22, 2008 | 499 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CHINA QUAKE … My old sem buddy Richard Brett was teaching and studying in China’s Sichuan province, when the devastating 7.8 Richter quake struck. Here is an edited version, printed with his permission, from his first person account to a listserv of his former classmates (me included) who’d been worrying about his safety.

BRETT’S ACCOUNT … The late morning turned out balmy and warm. I had worked hard preparing class for the week. There is a new Italian restaurant in Chengdu and I thought it would be relaxing (a favorite Chengdu word) to have some pasta and a glass of Prosecco in the afternoon heat. I took the 25-minute bus ride to the Peter Pan restaurant, where the chef, Claudio Bonfatti, greeted me warmly. The man is a born restaurateur. “Too hot for minestrone,” he said. “How about linguine with mozzarella and capers, a red tomato sauce, and a nice salad?” I pulled out my sci fi novel and enjoyed the leafy beauty of the trees and the quiet street. There was a long table made up with a bright red tablecloth with fourteen chairs around it. Soon the table, filled with young Americans in their mid twenties, gathered to celebrate a young blond woman's 24th birthday. The air hummed with “hey dudes” and “let's go to Mozambique next.” Theirs were the intelligent bright happy laughter of youth and America, a combination I had not seen together with such force since being home. Americans are rare in Chengdu. It felt very good … About two-thirty the young folks were beginning to hug goodbye. I started to think about paying the bill, when there was this rumble. It felt like a metro. Like the BART train going under me. But there's no metro in Chengdu. The ground started moving. Hmmmmmm! The mind works in a very interesting way. I’d been told there were no earthquakes in Sichuan. But this was a big one! A giant! EARTHQUAKE! … I watched as the ground heaved like that old ride at Playland at the Beach, the one with the saucer that the kids climbed on and it turned and turned faster and faster until you were thrown off … Some of the young folks shouted, “You’re from California. What do we do?” I’d always thought that if there were a big earthquake in Chengdu, buildings would fall all over the place. I didn’t trust construction here. I pointed the Americans and myself to various door frames. Standing there, the earthquake went on and on and on. The three apartment buildings across the street swayed back and forth like palm trees in an ocean warm trade wind. They looked like they would topple over. I thought, “This is it. I am going to die right here.” The thought was clinical at first, detached from emotion. But fear lurked. Every sense was edgy alert. It was not stopping. The buildings were going to fall. Shit. Hold on. A ride I cannot get off … Then, the rolling-turning-up-and-down-motion stopped. WHEW! We were alive! The street started to fill up with people running everywhere – folks rushing out of apartments, offices, shops, restaurants, anywhere outside … I felt a bit disoriented, as though the ground was still moving this way and that. We Americans gathered in the patio outside, everyone talking, excited and relieved. For all the others it was their first earthquake of any kind … Stephen, an American businessman who helps at the restaurant, grabbed his Lenova laptop and searched the net … After about ten minutes, CNN started to say there was a big earthquake in Southwest China, its epicenter 56 miles north of Chengdu. The streets were still full of people. Shops started to close, which I had never seen happen here during the day – except for the great Spring Festival … The Peter Pan emptied as people said goodbye. An old Chinese couple pulled up in what I think of was a golf cart and they spoke English. The elder gentleman came over and, in that great Chinese hospitable way, said, “My name is Paul. Are you from New York?” It turns out his mother was born in Greenwich Village and his father in Brooklyn. Paul lived 26 years in Queens. He was very proud of that. We chatted about New York and how great it was. Paul said he was happy to be in Chengdu as it was a relaxed place and cheap! … It took over two hours to get back to Southwest Jiaotong University. The big streets were incredibly crowded. Cabs all taken. The buses totally filled. It was the first time I felt like a sardine in a can … Back at the University the group in front of the apartment building said: “Bu! Bu! No, you cannot go in. Everyone stays outside tonight!” For the next three hours we waited by the central fountain of the school, everyone talking, telling where they were, asking what would happen. It was chaos. The streets were filled with people and cars started parking everywhere. Chinese drivers have a very free notion of rules. Tents started going up. People were not going to be sleeping inside this night. I was thinking of my bed and that if the buildings all survived the big one, aftershocks won't hurt them. Midnight came. The free newspaper being passed around said that officials were saying go inside. Sounded good to me, and off to bed I went … I have great affection, respect, and admiration for the Chinese people. Another reason showed itself as at about three in the morning, there was the great urban noisy sound of Chinese folks eating BBQ on the streets, drinking beer and tea, and doing what everyone in Chengdu do: playing mah jong or cards. Three in the morning of the big earthquake day! … At five in the morning, after a particularly big aftershock, a friend banged on the door to get outside. Grumpy, tired, a bit anxious, I told the group, get ready for this guys – aftershocks are part of our lives for the next couple of weeks. “You mean we ignore them?” came their astonished response. “Yes, ignore them,” I explained. “Or they are going to make you feel nuts” … Here it is almost two days later and the numbers of the dead rise. There are tens of thousands unaccounted for. There is a nervousness here. Classes have been cancelled again today. The weather has turned cool and rainy. Aftershocks continue to happen and, quite bewilderingly to me, the University officials have told us at least four times, “Stay outside as the government predicts more big ones.” Predict? I don't think so. If the place did not fall down the first time, I don’t think it will happen now. Or so my experience of Loma Prieta in 1989 informs me. I hope I am correct … After feeling Death's nasty breath too close, it feels hen hao (very good) to be in the air of life. Those of you who have been in a big earthquake know it is a time when emotions run riot – exhilaration, terror, anxiety, a bemused almost fun astonishment – multiple thoughts and feelings zoom through the mind. Then the sadness of realizing fellow human beings have suffered and died. Unforgettable. I had sincerely hoped I would never big in a big one again. I have the same feeling. Enough! But that is not the way of this ever changing, shaking, blowing planet, our earth home as it continues its journey from star stuff to star stuff. Mysterious, complex and still, life is good.

WEEKLY QUOTA … “She has potatoes. She can live for a while.” –Wang Guofei of Yong’an in China’s Sichuan Province about his mother living up in the hills and cut off by mudslides.

© 2008 Art Goodtimes


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