July 28th 2016 is the 40th anniversary of one of the most devastating natural events to hit the world in modern times. A shallow earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck China. Though felt across 14 Chinese provinces, it was in the city of Tangshan, not far from Beijing, that the effects were most severe. It was an industrial city of a million people and when the earthquake struck at midnight, the city was sleeping. Within a matter of moments hospitals, dormitories, factories, housing blocks were reduced to rubble. The official death toll was 242,000 dead and 164,000 severely injured.
Twenty years after the earthquake, in 1996, I was part of a team that travelled to Tangshan to make a documentary about the earthquake for viewers in the US and UK. Our focus was very much on the science of earthquakes – why this earthquake was so unusual and so devastating, and whether earthquakes can ever be predicted in a way that is useful for communities living in earthquake zones.
But what I remember most about Tangshan was meeting the people who had lived through the earthquake; how those few seconds had changed their lives and how they had worked to rebuild their lives and their community in the years that followed. We met a music professor in his 50s, who had written a symphony inspired by his experiences, and who played the theme for us, with passion and emotion, on an upright piano in his small living room. On the day before the earthquake, his family had moved house – a reward for his first wife’s commitment and skill as a teacher. Exhausted from a day of moving possessions and furniture, he had fallen asleep early, with his two children, one on either side. Only he survived that night. His wife and children died in the rubble of their new home. As the music ended, and we all sat silent, tears in our eyes, the professor’s wife appeared in the doorway with a giant cake. It was the birthday of one of the crew, and they wanted to celebrate the moment with us.
The next day we filmed Mr Wang, an unassuming man in his early forties who, on the day of the earthquake, had been in hospital. His young wife – her name meant “Golden Phoenix” – had come to keep him company there and, as the bed next to his was empty, she’d lain down to catch some sleep. When the earthquake struck, the hospital building collapsed and she was pinned down by concrete and girders where she lay. Wang tried desperately to reach her. He moved plaster and masonry with his bare hands but eventually he couldn’t move anything more. They could just touch the tips of their fingers through a crack in the rubble. Gradually, as day dawned, and then darkness fell; and then another day dawned, and another night fell, all the voices in the ward fell silent, including that of his beloved Golden Phoenix. On the eighth day, Wang heard the sounds of rescuers digging nearby and summoning all his strength he shouted out to them that he was still alive. He was the last survivor to be pulled alive from the wreckage of Tangshan.
In the months and years after the earthquake, the authorities acted as matchmaker for the thousands of widows, and widowers in the city, men like the professor and Mr Wang; and tried to find foster parents for the thousands of orphaned children.
Mr Wang took us to an atmospheric place – a factory building, left exactly as it was the day of the earthquake, a ghostly place of twisted girders, fallen masonry and broken walls. In the centre of Tangshan we filmed survivors at a memorial to those who died; and as dusk fell, we filmed as families came out into the open square around it to relax. Small children clutched balloons; fathers and sons flew kites. Today the city has been rebuilt and there’s an impressive new memorial, a snaking wall with the thousands of names of those who died engraved on it. On Qing Ming it is hung with flowers.
We went to many places when we were making that science series, places all over the world where people had suffered terrible natural disasters – volcanic eruptions, tsunami, hurricanes, tornadoes. But Tangshan seemed different. It felt to me as if the people there had taken a very dignified decision: they refused to pretend this enormous tragedy hadn’t struck their community – but equally, they refused to let themselves been defined or destroyed by it.