After the China Earthquake, 'a Horrible Scene' With parents mourning children and others hoping for a miracle, the Chinese city of Chengdu became a waking nightmare after Monday's devastating earthquake. NPR's Andrea Hsu describes an urban landscape of destruction, misery and dismay.
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Producer Andrea Hsu on a changed reporting trip

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After the China Earthquake, 'a Horrible Scene'

Producer Andrea Hsu on a changed reporting trip

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As we heard earlier, NPR's got a crew of reporters and producers on the ground in China. They were there preparing special reports on the changing face of that country ahead of the Olympics this summer. On Monday, they found themselves reporting a very different kind of story.

MELISSA BLOCK: What's going on? The whole building is shaking. The whole building is shaking. My goodness. Oh, my goodness, we're in the middle of an earthquake. The top of the church is falling down. The ground is shaking and all the people are running out in the street.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Melissa Block describing the moment the 7.9 earthquake hit. The devastation is massive. State agencies say the death toll from the quake is now close to 12,000 and that number is likely to soar as rescue-and-recovery efforts continue. Thousands of people are still trapped inside buildings or buried in the rubble. NPR producer Andrea Hsu was with Melissa Block when the quake struck, and she joins me now on the line from Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. Andrea, thanks for being here.

ANDREA HSU: Thank you.

MARTIN: You were doing an interview, you and Melissa, with a Christian pastor at a seminary outside of Chengdu when the ground started just shaking. Melissa, in that tape, sounds relatively calm, although she has a sense of urgency. Describe what was going through your head at that moment.

HSU: We were actually in Chengdu, in the city at the seminary and we had just sat down for this interview with a Pastor Tyne (ph). I was recording it and she was just getting into introducing him and I remember him saying that he teaches about the Gospel of John. And she says, Gospel of John? And he says, yes, John. And all of a sudden, we heard this rumble. One of his assistants first ran out of the room, he followed. They didn't say anything.

But I could see the ceiling shaking. And we ran outside and everyone was pouring out of the building. I could see the cars shaking and the ground beneath my feet shaking, and just listening to that tape just now, I hadn't listened back. Even though I sent the tape yesterday, I hadn't listened to it at all. I didn't have time. And it just kind of gave me the chills just listening to it and remembering what I was feeling at that time.

MARTIN: From there, the both of you went to a middle school in a neighboring city where literally hundreds of children, of students, were trapped inside this school that had been destroyed. That must have been a harrowing scene.

HSU: That was truly one of the most awful things I've ever seen. We had hired two cars to drive us northwest towards the city of Dujiangyan, and we knew that the school had collapsed, and Melissa and I arrived on the site with our driver. There were just hundreds of parents. it was dark already and starting to rain. They were just sitting there waiting, standing, watching as these cranes were lifting, trying to lift massive chunks of concrete.

And we stopped to talk to a few of the parents and they were just - a lot of them were just desperate for information. They weren't getting any information. They said they'd been there for hours, and the first few hours the People's Armed Police had arrived. They were the rescuers, but they didn't have any equipment with them. And then it soon became apparent that behind us, there were families that were actually already grieving the loss of their sons or daughters.

These were bodies that had been pulled out of the wreckage and laid out on the ground and identified. And they were setting up these makeshift altars, burning incense, burning paper money. We heard firecrackers that were going off. That's to scare off the ghosts. It was just a horrible, horrible scene. We saw several bodies of children being carried outside by rescuers and laid on the ground, and family members realizing it was their loved ones. It was just a horrible scene.

MARTIN: I know you've probably been out reporting today, what have you seen?

HSU: Well, this morning, we drove northward away from the - we didn't drive toward the epicenter because we heard that those roads were completely blocked off and that rescuers were having to go in by foot. So we drove northwards towards Beichuan County, where we heard that there were thousands of deaths and 80 percent of the buildings had been toppled. And we got pretty close to Beichuan County.

We saw - the further we went, the more devastation we saw. First, it was sort of like tiled roofs that had collapsed, and then later on it was whole homes that had collapsed. But it's interesting, because along the way, we saw some buildings that were pretty much totally intact. And our translator, one the guides who went with us today, said those buildings were built in the '50s. Actually they were very good construction. They were brick. They look solid. And a lot of the newer construction is what had fallen down.

And we stopped in this village and the first boy I talked to was a 14 year old boy who was standing on the side of the road with a bamboo pole and his foot was swollen, had these horrible blisters. And he said that he had been at home yesterday, bricks had toppled onto him. He went out to find his grandmother. They walked for three or four hours spent the night somewhere and he saw on a motorcycle this morning to come to this town to look for medical help. And it turned out he had a fractured foot. He walked on that yesterday for three or four hours.

MARTIN: Ouch. I imagine there are so many stories like that. Andrea, are there medical tents that have been set up. How are these people getting, the survivors how are they getting medical attention and what's the larger picture of the rescue or recovery effort?

HSU: You know, I didn't get a chance to talk to rescuers today, but as we were driving back to Chengdu to file some of the, you know, the file the reports that Melissa had done, we saw lots of convoys of army soldiers driving northwards towards that area. We must have seen at least a dozen, if not two dozen, buses full of soldiers going northward.

We saw trucks that looked like they had supplies on them. But in that village, the town that we stopped in today, there was just the local clinic, which was, you know, just one village doctor, and he brought a bench outside to treat that (unintelligible), and he said that he would have to be taken elsewhere to have his foot set.

MARTIN: In one of Melissa's reports, Andrea, she talked about the anger that has been expressed by many people that she has talked with. I'm sure that you have been with her when she has been doing those interviews. Who is that anger directed to?

HSU: That was mainly last night at the school. We were - at first, parents seemed very grateful to have somebody to talk to. But then the police actually stopped us and asked if we had permission to be there, and said, you know, these people are going through so much. Don't anger them. Don't, you know - they're grieving. Don't make it worse. But I think that was stemming from this general anger at the Western media over recent coverage of the Tibet events and also events related to the torch relay. And I think, in general, Western media is regarded as, you know, sort of the enemy...

MARTIN: Suspect.

HSU: In a way that all we want to do is negative reports. So I had to explain to them that we just want to get the story out and, you know, we're sorry if there's been a misunderstanding and, you know, they detained us for a few moments and I just said, you know, please, please, you have much more important things to deal with. So eventually they let us leave and I put the equipment away and we were able to walk around for a little bit more without the equipment.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Andrea Hsu. She's on the ground in Chengdu, China, where she, along with a team of NPR reporters and producers, have been reporting on the massive earthquake that rocked that country. Thanks, Andrea.

HSU: Thank you.


Next on the show, Anthony Pellicano, Hollywood private eye, being tried on federal racketeering charges. The trial's been making headlines, but the question is, do you care? We'll do a little Make Me Care segment about Anthony Pellicano next. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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