Zhongli Pan, a UC Davis food science professor was in Shaanxi Province, China on May 12 when he felt vibrations crawl up his body. Having overheard a discussion on earthquakes just a day earlier, Pan thought it was coincidental and ignored the movements.
Pan was in China for a seminar at Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University – and thought nothing of the jolts until he heard cries of desperation inside the building. It was then that he realized that he was in an earthquake and the fourth floor he was standing on was not going to stop shaking.
“I continued to hear people screaming and people run out of the building,” Pan said.
However, Pan did not know the extent of the earthquake, which originated in the neighboring Sichuan Province. Measuring in at a magnitude of 7.9, it claimed thousands of lives.
As of Tuesday, the earthquake’s death toll tabbed in at 69,107, according to Xinhua News Agency, the People Republic of China’s national press. The news agency also reported that 18,230 individuals were still missing at that time. Two of Sichuan’s cities were especially damaged – Wenchuan and Chengdu are very close to the epicenter of the earthquake.
“Our cell phones were jammed,” Pan said. “We only heard about what happened in Wenchuan later on.”
Pan said he felt the earthquake in the afternoon in China, but by then it was almost midnight in California. He resisted the urge to call his wife, Ruihong Zhang, an agricultural engineering professor at UC Davis. Instead, Pan waited till it was morning in the United States to tell her what happened.
“I called my family in the morning to tell [them] I was safe,” Pan said.
Zhang was with the couple’s two daughters in Davis and was unaware that the earthquake even happened until her husband gave her a surprise wakeup call.
“The first thing I asked was if he was okay, and he said he was safe,” Zhang said.
Pan said the Shaanxi Province earthquake lasted for less than a minute, estimating that it was between 20 to 30 seconds at most. Though he realized he was riding through an earthquake Pan said he did not feel scared, because “there was no time to think.”
After the earthquake, civilians were in a state of shock because few considered the likelihood of such a massive earthquake, Pan said. UC Davis professor of geology Donald Turcotte visited the city of Chengdu in the proximate Sichuan Province 15 years ago for a seminar. He said that although there was no forecast of this earthquake, the region is highly prone and under-prepared for such an episode.
“That area is highly populated, and they are trying improve [and expand] buildings, but they are not [yet] earthquake resistant,” Turcotte said. “There are lots of people living in masonry buildings. When you have an earthquake magnitude greater than seven, with lots of people [in the area] and substandard construction, it’s not a surprise.”
Pan said he saw workers in hotels usher people onto the street for fear that aftershocks would collapse the buildings. He took pictures of people in the city as they began to make shelter in the streets.
“The town’s people were [so] scared that they camped out on the street,” Pan said. “People didn’t know what was going to happen…. I saw a lot people on the curbside that evening organizing activities.”
Hampering the organizing efforts are continuous threats of aftershocks. Aftershocks have made the rescue efforts dangerous and have destroyed infrastructures, making some roads inaccessible.
“The aftershocks trapped people,” Pan said. “[They] couldn’t leave. The area has a lot of mountains, roads were broken.”
According to Xinhua News, almost 800,000 people have been rescued. The Chinese government has already allotted over $3.3 billion for earthquake relief and have also set a short timeline to rebuild the Province of Sichuan and any other affected areas.
“The central government says they are going [to get it done] in three years,” Pan said. “If they decide to do it, they will.”
Donations are pouring in throughout the world. The national news agency estimated almost $6 billion in foreign, aid and donations have trickled into China to support the victims of the earthquake.
Pan returned to the U.S. last week, but his mind is still on the earthquake in China; he and his family are now trying to help the relief efforts. Their seven-year-old daughter recently helped them raise over $10,000 dollars for a fund for Sichuan earthquake victims, and the fund has a goal of $100,000.
“We are providing donations,” Zhang said. “We are supporting activities and providing support to people [affected by the quake.]”
JACKSON YAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.