Forty years ago on July 28, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake tore through the industrial city of Tangshan in northern China’s Hebei province. Although death tolls for the Tangshan earthquake vary greatly from 250,000 to above 600,000, the disaster is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most destructive earthquakes in terms of lives lost.
Striking at a time of acute political turmoil as the Cultural Revolution was nearing its end, the disaster was not widely reported at the time, with authorities refusing all relief efforts by foreign organizations and prohibiting those who took part in rescue operations from taking photographs. To commemorate four decades since the disaster, historian Jin Dalu teamed up with the Shanghai Cultural Publishing House to collate the personal accounts of those who took part in rescue efforts.
This is part one in a series. For the second, click here.
The year the earthquake struck was the year of my graduation. I had taken up work as a medical worker and was sent to Tangshan’s Lunan District on July 30 to aid relief efforts. I had actually previously visited the site of the Hiroshima atomic bombing during my time studying abroad in Japan, but nothing I had ever experienced could have prepared me for the destruction I found at Tangshan.
Flying in gave me the chance to take in the disorder from above. Houses had crumbled, their ruins resembling rows of small hills. Trees had been ripped from the ground and were strewn all over the place randomly. No roads were visible.
Two ambulances wailed up to us when we landed. They offered up four bloodied bodies, which we quickly loaded onto the plane. That night we slept on top of some rope we had bundled together in a nearby grass field.
The cold morning air awakened us and we were quickly hustled onto trucks that had been sent over by the People’s Liberation Army. On the way to the disaster site we passed a culvert that had piles of bodies wrapped in blankets, each reaching several meters high. The trucks drove slowly between the bodies. Blood pooled everywhere. Several of my colleagues vomited.
All the houses in the downtown area had collapsed. Three-story buildings stood wall-less, like dollhouses, allowing us to peek inside. A lifeless pair of feet hung out of one. The electric poles in the area were draped with blankets, clothes, and pants; stools, desk lamps, radios, and other items had been flung on top of the rubble.
Not grasping the magnitude of the situation, some children were outside playing, while elders sat watching them, some of them sobbing silently. Many people in Tangshan had large families, and almost every one of them had suffered casualties.
The military participated in disaster relief on a major scale and the situation improved. They not only helped aid relief efforts, but acted as a police force and protected us from thievery. One time when we were on a house call, a truck drove into the town, signaling its approach with a blaring horn.
The truck was outfitted with loudspeakers: “Residents of Tangshan, the armed forces of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army are acting under orders to assume control of Lunan District. Following confirmation from the general headquarters of the earthquake disaster relief efforts, these listed criminals who have committed robbery in the disaster area will be executed.”
I suddenly noticed that two people had been tied to the front of the truck and four on the side. Signs declaring them to be thieves hung above their heads. I later learned that they were not rescue personnel but opportunistic looters.
Looting became endemic to Tangshan after the earthquake. Hands reaching out of the rubble were quickly stripped of their watches. Many people begging for help were ignored by the looters, who instead tried to use the chaos the earthquake had caused to their advantage. Frankly, I think they deserved to be shot.
I was transferred to the Tangshan Railway Station on August 3 to oversee the medical situation of the troops there. The train tracks had been completely twisted. All of the bodies under the rubble had begun to rot and the area was cloaked in a putrid stench.
I watched as two of the soldiers clearing the rubble fainted from the smell. None of them had gas masks, and many were pressing towels to their faces. As they cleared the debris, body after body was transported over to us. The dead were placed in military body bags, tied shut, and set aside.
Everyone burned out as the days passed. We had all arrived originally in a state of excitement, but this was replaced by a feeling of constant anxiety. It wasn’t long before we all returned from our medical rounds in complete silence. The days were hot, and the trucks that rumbled by throughout the night were so loud that nobody could sleep well. One of our older team members passed countless nights awake and miserable.
We eventually withdrew from the Tangshan Railway Station, which was reopened a week after the earthquake. The leaders of the city went car-to-car shaking hands with each of us individually. As we left, they called out: “The people of the disaster area will never forget Shanghai’s medical team!” These words have echoed in my head for 40 years now.
A movie was released several years ago that depicted the Tangshan earthquake, but it didn’t capture the reality of the disaster at all and seemed only intent on making money. I could barely watch it all the way through. It also misrepresented the spirit of the people of Tangshan. A number of broken families were able to create new families later. The people of the north are born survivors.
(Header image: Rescue forces search for survivors in the ruins in Tangshan, Hebei province, July 1976. Sovfoto/Getty Images/VCG)