Small Miracles Rise from Earthquake's Rubble

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Wei Bo and Huang Zhihui were among the few survivors of the collapse of Juyuan Middle School. i

Wei Bo (left) and Huang Zhihui (right), both 15, were among the few survivors of the catastrophic collapse of Juyuan Middle School, outside the city of Dujiangyan, China, May 12, 2008. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
Wei Bo and Huang Zhihui were among the few survivors of the collapse of Juyuan Middle School.

Wei Bo (left) and Huang Zhihui (right), both 15, were among the few survivors of the catastrophic collapse of Juyuan Middle School, outside the city of Dujiangyan, China, May 12, 2008.

Andrea Hsu/NPR
Shoelaces hang to dry steps away from where a collapsed apartment building. i

There are signs of survivors trying to establish normalcy among the chaos. Here, shoelaces hang on a clothesline to dry steps away from where a collapsed apartment building is being excavated in the city of Dujiangyan. Melissa Block/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Block/NPR
Shoelaces hang to dry steps away from where a collapsed apartment building.

There are signs of survivors trying to establish normalcy among the chaos. Here, shoelaces hang on a clothesline to dry steps away from where a collapsed apartment building is being excavated in the city of Dujiangyan.

Melissa Block/NPR
An excavator claws through a pile of rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Dujiangyan. i

An excavator claws through a pile of rubble of the collapsed apartment building. Melissa Block/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Block/NPR
An excavator claws through a pile of rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Dujiangyan.

An excavator claws through a pile of rubble of the collapsed apartment building.

Melissa Block/NPR

NPR's Melissa Block was in Chengdu, China when the earthquake hit last Monday. She and her All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel were there, preparing for a week-long series of reports from Chengdu they had been planning for months. That coverage will begin tomorrow on All Things Considered, their stories, obviously, radically transformed. Now, Block offers this Reporter's Notebook.

Late Saturday night, when a potent aftershock jolted me out of bed, I thought about two 15-year-old boys I met on Thursday.

Both were in Juyuan Middle School when the earthquake hit. That building was completely destroyed — with hundreds of children killed.

The boys I met were in the lucky minority of survivors.

Huang Zhihui has a beautiful face, and soft eyes. When his school building started to shake He followed his history teacher's orders to run. He had just made it to the playground when the school collapsed behind him.

His friend Wei Bo was in politics class. His teacher told the students to stay in their seats and keep calm. Wei was buried in the rubble but managed to claw his way out after 20 minutes, with just a scrape on his back.

He also helped save a friend.

His teacher was crushed, and killed.

When I asked the boys how they're doing now, Wei told me, "Every time there's an aftershock, I feel scared in my heart."

His friend chimes in, "I don't dare go indoors. If I do, I'm haunted by fear."

No one is staying inside. Even if houses remain standing, people are sleeping outdoors.

And the aftershocks continue to rumble through with a regularity that makes your stomach lurch.

If they're this strong here in Chengdu, I can only imagine how terrifying they are closer to the epicenter.

In battered cities around an earthquake zone, I've seen tiny signs of survivors trying to establish normalcy amid the chaos.

Just steps away from excavators carting away the remains of a collapsed building in Dujiangyan, I spotted shoelaces hanging from a makeshift clothesline. The residents from that building are living under a tarp on the median of their street. The air is full of dust. But they had carefully draped shoelaces on that line to dry.

I haven't begun to process the scale of this disaster. On Wednesday, I spent a long day with a mother and father as they watched heavy machinery dig through the rubble of their apartment building. I was there with them when they learned their only child had been found dead — a boy, not quite two years old, killed with his grandparents. The sound of their utter anguish echoes constantly in my mind.

And yet, there continue to be stories of daring rescue — of impossible survival — even now, after six days.

I keep looking at a photo on the Xinhua news agency Web site.

It shows a soldier gently cradling a round-cheeked tiny bundle of an infant. The baby is sleeping peacefully, without even a scratch. The baby is about three months old, wearing a quilted green vest and soft shoes, wrapped in a blanket.

Xinhua says the baby was found on Tuesday in the wreckage of a building in Beichuan .

The mother was found kneeling above her child in protection.

She did not survive. But she saved her baby.

And, according to Xinhua, in a story that just defies belief, but that you hope is true, the rescue workers also found a cell phone. The mother had tucked it into her baby's blanket. She had typed a text message on the screen. The message said, "My dear, if you can survive, please remember I love you."

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