Fourteen-year old Chen Yuqiu and thirteen-year-old Deng Qinglan used to share a desk at Yinhua school. The older girl helped her friend at math, while the younger girl dispensed advice with English homework.
Photo by Louisa Lim, NPR
Chen Yuqiu, 14, recovering in a Sichuan hospital.
These two young girls may have been ordinary students, but during the earthquake they behaved in a way that was anything but ordinary. It was a Monday afternoon, two minutes before geology class was due to start, and Chen Yuqiu was handing out math papers as the other students were looking at charts and graphics.
Then the room started to shake.
As they saw other children running, they also began to flee their classroom. Chen Yuqiu explains what she remembered happening next.
Two Girls Trapped
Photo by Louisa Lim, NPR.
"On the stairway I got stuck and she helped me get out," Chen Yuqiu says, her voice soft but sure of herself. "When I was nearly out of the school, she got stuck and I came back to help her because she'd helped me. At that time I was at the front and I thought if I came back to help her, we could still get out. But we both got crushed under a floor slab."
Both girls were trapped, but Deng Qinglan initially cleared some of the stones off Chen Yuqiu's body to allow her to breathe more freely. Eventually they were both dug out of the rubble, and at that point Chen Yuqiu began suffering from abdominal pain. Deng helped her friend get to a local hospital, and stayed with her long into the night, comforting her and trying to get medical help. Aftershock tremors were continuing, both girls were dazed after escaping from the rubble of their school, and they hadn't known whether the rest of their families were alive or dead. Chen was later operated on for a perforated duodenum. It was three days before she discovered her parents were alive.
Her story was seemed one of cut and dried heroism. We were taken to her hospital bed by her doctor Yin Huajian. He'd gestured towards the young girl, whose face still bore scratches and scabs from her ordeal, and said, "This young girl was injured when she went back into her school to save her friend. She is very brave, and we were moved by her story."
Finding Someone in a Tent City
Afterwards we went to find Deng Qinglan, something we imagined would be an impossible task in a tent city of 400-thousand people. Amazingly, the organization of the temporary housing was such that we were able to track her down. Displaced people are grouped together according to their former village and township, so we were able to discover which area of makeshift tents had been allocated to people from her village. Then, by flicking through the registers at an administration tent, we were able to locate her tent. She wasn't there, but had gone to seek shade from the burning sun in a big open shed, and it was there we finally managed to find her.
Her story didn't exactly chime with Chen Yuqiu's. In fact, she changed it several times before saying she'd been confused and admitting, "I was scared witless in the earthquake." In any case, it's clear she and Chen had helped each other out of the school, and she'd looked after her injured friend, and kept her spirits up through that long, terrifying night when the young girl was suffering from agonizing pain. Out of 45 students in their class, 19 were killed, and several were still missing, presumed dead.
This story was not one-of-a-kind.
Time and time again in the course of reporting, I heard stories of heroism; of doctors and nurses in one hospital who'd made repeated trips into their crumbling building to carry the patients out on their backs, even though they'd seen the building opposite collapsing; of firemen who'd worked for ten days and ten nights straight, sometimes working as tears coursed down their faces; of recce teams who walked for hours and hours to devastated areas, then turned round and walked back just as quickly again to provide information about what was needed, a vital task given the lack of communications, but a heartrending one as they were forced to ignore individual pleas of help to serve the greater good. And none of these people saw themselves as heroes. They were just doing their best under the circumstances.
When I asked Chen Yuqiu if she'd regretted going back to save her friend, she replies, "No, she saved me, so I should save her."
As to the future, she said the earthquake had changed her worldview. "Before I wanted to be a teacher," she says smiling weakly from her hospital bed, "Now I want to go to university and be a doctor and save lives."
As for the friend to whom she might owe her life, Deng Qinglan doggedly denied performing any acts of heroism. "All I want is to go back to school," she says sadly.