Atop a Lonely Sichuan Mountain, Grit, Hope, and Survival
The nightmares still haunt Gan Yu. Each night, he is transported back to the remote wilderness of the mountains. There, his desperate cries for help echo across the imposing hills before fading into silence.
When a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Luding County in the southwestern Sichuan province on Sept. 5, Gan Yu, a 28-year-old hydropower supervisor, and his coworker Luo Yong attempted to save their wounded coworkers and lift the sluice gates of the dam to prevent a mudslide.
But their courage cost them. They missed their chance to escape in time. While rescuers found Luo Yong three days later, Gan Yu was trapped in the wilderness for 17 days before finally being rescued. Luo was with the team that finally found Gan Yu.
After being released from hospital on Oct. 8, Gan returned to his hometown Dazhou in Sichuan for some much-needed rest. He still has flashbacks of rocks hurtling down the mountainside and striking people in the dam area.
While 10 of his coworkers were spared a terrible fate, four others were pinned to the ground and never got back up again. One of them was Luo Yong’s brother, while another was his best friend.
Thus, the fates of 16 hydropower station workers were entangled in a story of disaster and heroism, survival, and death.
Before the calamity, 32-year-old Sun Jianhong, a welder at the dam, had a bad premonition several days before.
On Aug. 29, he and six fellow workers went to work at the Wandong Hydropower Plant. The swelling of the waterways during the flood season had broken the dam’s revetment and the two-story dormitory building was at risk of collapse.
Sun and his team were to construct a retaining wall with steel cages filled with rocks. Once filled and sealed tight, the frames would then be lined up along the bank using an excavator. The job was supposed to take them a little more than 20 days.
Built in 2019, the hydropower plant is located downstream from a forked river in the gully on the eastern side of the Gonggar Mountain. It joins Luding County in Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to the north and Shimian County in the city of Ya’an to the south.
Surrounded by 45 mountains whose peaks tower more than 6,000 meters above sea level, the 25-meter-tall dam stands 1,192 meters above sea level. Water flows down in hydraulic tunnels and pressure pipes before arriving at the plant downstream in the valley, which is about a 90-minute drive from the dam.
The workers prepared their own meals and slept in tents set up next to the dormitory they were reinforcing. On the day they arrived, Sun was taken aback at how unsafe it looked: the building was located right on the bank of the river, while the precipitous rock face of the mountain loomed just 10 meters behind it.
“When boulders fall, we’ll be done for,” he recalls thinking to himself. He figured that testing whether rats were willing to frequent this area was a decent indicator of how likely an avalanche was. On Sept. 1, he placed a bit of rice and a chunk of meat in the corner of the dormitory. In the three nights that followed, the bait was all untouched.
On Sept. 4, Luo Yong, an employee at the hydropower company, called on three workers to help haul rocks: Ma Zhengjun, Luo’s brother Kaiqing, and his nephew Yang Gang — all from his home village of Wandong.
After each day’s work, all three returned home with 170 yuan ($25) in wages. Supervising them was Gan Yu, who wore sunglasses and was seemingly more suited to office work. Having got to know him over a few days, Sun felt Gan was friendly enough.
Gan lived at the plant. He drove over to check on the dam every morning and went back at night. At the end of August, Gan Yu took time off for his grandmother’s birthday — but because there weren’t enough hands on deck, he was called back early.
Apart from him, there were three other dam workers: Luo Yong, Peng Yunjun, and Deng Rong. They took shifts in pairs to oversee the dam’s water level, and lift the sluice gates at a moment’s notice, when required.
Luo explains that he was busiest during flood season, from July to September. Sometimes, he had to clear the waterway of debris two to three times in the middle of the night. “If the generator isn’t in operation, the dam fills up quickly. When it rains hard, it can fill to maximum capacity in a matter of hours,” he says.
Peng Yunjun had already experienced one brush with danger in the past during a torrential downpour in August. That night, he kept watch until dawn and, concluding that the water level was essentially stable, rode back home on his motorbike to eat a meal.
He had only taken a few mouthfuls when he began to feel uneasy. He rushed back just in time: the dam was only a few dozen centimeters away from spilling over. He frantically opened the sluice gate — which is manually operated — and ran for his life. “He almost didn’t get out in time,” recalls Peng Yunjun’s younger brother Peng Rongqiang.
The dam workers generally ate and slept in the dormitory, which had computers to monitor the water levels. They got one week off every two weeks, and could only take turns to rest for one or two days around Spring Festival.
Outside the flood season, work was largely uneventful. But with a salary of only 3,000 yuan a month and no social benefits known in China as “five insurances and one housing fund,” 41-year-old Luo Yong struggled to keep his two children fed.
He grows vegetables at home, which helps him save on groceries. In quiet moments during his two-week shifts, he busied himself cleaning the dorm and even sweeping the road leading up to the dam. “It kept me sane,” he says.
However, for Sun Jianhong, who came solely to fix the retaining wall this one time, the absence of rats in the dormitory and the oppressive feeling of being alone in front of a rock face were too much of a coincidence to bear.
So he left, thus becoming the only team member to dodge the earthquake, and the tragedy that unfolded.
After lunch on Sept. 5, six welders and one excavator had just got back to work. Three workers transporting cement had parked outside, changed, and were getting ready to pour it.
In the recreation room inside the dormitory at the foot of the dam, Peng Yunjun and three rock haulers were warming up around a fire while Gan Yu and Luo Yong chatted.
It began with an ominous rumbling at 12:52 p.m., which steadily grew in intensity. Moments later, Gan saw the windows shatter and the appliances “explode” in an instant. Everyone rushed outside. According to welder Yan Qinghua, “boulders had crashed right through three of the dormitory walls.”
The mountainside had already begun to crumble and the violent churning grew louder and louder. One stone struck Gan Yu on his back, knocking him over onto the slope downhill from the recreation home. Dazed, he managed to pull himself to his feet and immediately ran toward a wide, open platform where he thought he would be safer.
Having lost his glasses, the severely nearsighted Gan had difficulty seeing where he was going. Not far away, he could vaguely discern Luo Yong helping his brother Kaiqing by the arm.
Struck by falling rock, Luo Kaiqing had suffered internal injuries and could no longer walk. Next to him, two of his coworkers were severely injured too.
Covered in blood, Peng Yunjun lay unmoving in the rubble that had buried the recreation room. Half of Yang Gang’s body was crushed under a boulder; his head mushed in the mud, and his feet still twitching.
The other outdoor workers had waded across the river and were running away from the mountain.
“If any more rolled down, we wouldn’t have been able to help anybody,” says Gan. He tried moving the stone under which Yang Gang was trapped, but even with help from Yan Qinghua, it just wouldn’t budge.
All they could do was carry Peng Yunjun to the riverbank. From there, they took him to a safer platform and laid him on a tent bed. Soon after, another huge slab fell. Yan couldn’t stay any longer, and he too waded across the river.
That left Gan Yu and Luo Yong.
Gan suggested they immediately climb up to the dam and lift the sluice gates. The pressure pipes leading to the generator descend 700 meters, passing close to many houses and fields in Wandong Village. In such a precarious situation, it could cause a deadly mudslide.
Luo Yong agreed. But before heading up the hill, he told his injured brother to hold on.
The concrete road up to the dam had already collapsed. “It was dangerous — rocks continued to fall as we made our way up,” says Luo Yong. It took Luo two running jumps before he was finally able to clamber over the debris and onto the dam. There, he started up the diesel generator and lifted the first sluice. Next, he helped Gan Yu up before pulling the second sluice.
“If he hadn’t done that, the people you’ve interviewed would no longer be alive,” Luo Yong’s wife Yang Xiuqing tells The Paper. After the earthquake, she explains, the pressure pipes burst.
“In no more than 20 minutes, the mountainside next to us would have been completely flooded,” she says. When the water levels stopped rising, many villagers could hardly believe that there were still people up on the dam.
By that point, Luo Yong’s brother and a coworker, Peng Yunjun, had succumbed. Another hauler, Ma Zhengjun, died instantly after being completely buried.
Yan Qinghua says that the 10 people who escaped in time followed an old road used by local loggers to the nearby Menghu Hill. This one-meter-wide road was the only way out at the time.
Two of them who walked fast were able to leave the mountains by sundown. It was already the middle of the night when the remaining eight arrived at Menghu Hill. They lit a fire and slept on the ground before making the rest of the trip out of the mountain the next morning.
Sun Jianhong, who left the dam a day before the earthquake, noticed that the faces of the workers who escaped were all disheveled; their clothes were covered in mud, their shoes and pants were torn, while their hands and feet were badly scraped.
He asked them, “How come you didn’t bring Gan Yu and Luo Yong with you?”
They replied: “The mountains were crumbling and the ground split open. What could we do but run?”
Back at the dam, Luo Yong and Gan Yu spent the night in the generator room.
The two had known one another for more than a year as nodding acquaintances, exchanging occasional pleasantries. That evening, the temperature dropped to around 10 degrees Celsius. They had trouble sleeping. So they chatted about their families and vowed that, if they made it out alive, they would find safer jobs.
By Sept. 6, the rock face was still slipping, so the two decided to leave. Rubble had sealed off the kitchen door and they couldn’t get any food.
The only available supplies were some ropes, a pair of hard hats, and a bottle of water. Climbing the mountain meant the water was consumed in just half a day. Luo Yong says that Gan Yu was a little weaker. “We only had one bottle. He kept asking me to drink it, even after I told him I didn’t need to,” says Luo.
By around 2 or 3 p.m., Gan Yu sent his GPS location to his work unit leader and the two looked for a wide-open space where they could await rescue. Luo Yong tied Gan’s white shirt to a bamboo pole and climbed atop a tree. Every time they heard a helicopter, he waved the rod from the treetop, but they weren’t spotted.
At the same time, Gan Yu took both their dying cellphones to a place with slightly better reception and waited for a rescue call. But the only calls they received were from some of Luo’s relatives. He couldn’t articulate exactly where they were, so to save battery, he just hung up.
For food, there were kiwi fruit and pears around. The chocolate vine fruit had virtually all been eaten by wild monkeys. They only discovered a couple, which Luo retrieved by climbing more than 10 meters up a tree.
He gave them to Gan Yu. “I was hungry, but I could handle it,” says Luo. Even if he was hungry, he says he wouldn’t have been able to keep food down. Not long after the earthquake, he got a call from his family — his mother was trapped under the collapsed roof of their home.
In the evening, they tried to start a fire. But even after rubbing together branches until their hands were sore, they couldn’t manage. That night, the duo slept with their backs together and covered themselves with leaves to try and keep out the cold.
On Sept. 7, the third day after the earthquake, Gan Yu received a message from his work unit leader: two armed police units — a paramilitary police force often involved in disaster response — had gone looking for them the previous afternoon.
Luo Yong recalled the helicopter that had flown by the dam back then and resolved to go back there to check. Gan Yu, who no longer had the strength to go on, stayed put and waited. Before Luo left, he collected some wild fruit and filled his hard hat with water from a stream for Gan.
Eight or nine hours later, when Luo finally made it back to the dam, the rescue team was nowhere to be found. By that point, much of the road had eroded and was replaced by dangerous slopes. He was too hungry and tired to go back up anyway.
He dug up a bamboo shoot about half as tall as he was, peeled back the hard exterior, and took two bites of the tip, which he swallowed with great difficulty.
Stones were still rolling all around the dam. He picked up a cigarette lighter lying in the rubble, but didn’t dare stop moving. He decided to make his way to a nearby hamlet called Huocaoping. It rained that evening and he took shelter under a tree. Unable to find any dry kindling, he was cold and tired, but couldn’t sleep.
The next day, he finally managed to light a fire. After devouring an apple from a tree, he used the lighter to kindle a pile of damp grass. He sat next to it for hours as it produced plumes of thick smoke and, just as he was about to collapse from exhaustion, heard a helicopter again. He knew his ordeal was over.
Gan Yu waited at the same spot for three days.
Once, while he was fetching water from a stream, falling rock injured his left foot. But fearing Luo Yong was in trouble, he decided to bite back the pain and follow the river ditch back to the dam.
It wasn’t long before he was wading in waist-high water. He decided to trudge up the mountain again and attempt to find Menghu Hill, which Luo had previously pointed out to him.
Foggy all around, it was hard to see the road clearly. There was only a small window around noon when he could make out where he was going. He walked for two or three hours and, when he got too tired, curled up against a rock face or under a tree and covered himself with leaves and drifted off.
At night, the sound of rocks crumbling and animals howling made sleeping difficult.
Hunger had him cough up yellow bile, but all he had to fill his stomach was water. Later, he discovered some wild kiwis that had fallen to the ground.
In the first few days, he could hear helicopters and knew they were looking for him, so he hung his clothes in the trees and, every now and then, called out for help. He could only recall happy memories and think of his family. “It was pure conviction. I had to get home — my family was looking for me,” he says.
Dead or alive?
Gan’s family knew he was missing only after Luo was rescued.
On Sept. 9, his father Gan Guoming hurried back from Guangzhou. He picked up his wife overnight and rushed to Luding, where the local earthquake rescue outpost was located, to ask for information.
The following day, a staff member there gave him a mooncake for Mid-Autumn Festival. “I will only eat it once we find my son,” he recalls vowing.
That morning, a 16-person rescue team set off up the mountain. They were guided by Luo Yong’s cousin, a 49-year-old resident of Wandong Village named Luo Lijun. He didn’t know Gan Yu directly, but he wanted to help.
The team was transported by helicopter to Menghu Hill before venturing deeper on foot. Luo Yong flew with them. Having only spent less than two days in hospital, his complexion was still sallow and he had yet to regain his strength, so he remained on board and gave directions.
As they walked, Luo Lijun noticed that the roads were almost entirely gone. The team often had to dig their way through with spades.
On the first day, they climbed three peaks, one of which was where Gan Yu was finally found. They saw trails of footprints belonging to sheep, cows, and humans. That night, they slept on the ground there.
The next day, when they arrived at the place Luo Yong and Gan Yu separated, the squad followed footprints on the ground for a few kilometers. They called out, but received no reply.
Menghu Hill is spread across a huge area that would take at least a month to thoroughly scour. Luo Lijun says that around these ragged parts, you are as good as deaf to each other more than 50 meters away. It’s all down to luck. By the afternoon, the squad had exhausted provisions, and had to return to base.
Four days later, Luo Lijun came back with a search party and continued on another path, again to no avail.
So did Sun Jianhong. On the afternoon of Sept. 9, he led up a team of 30 firefighters, police, and volunteers. After walking for four to five hours, they still couldn’t get to Menghu Hill. The road was too dangerous and they had to turn back.
On Sept. 12, Sun and two of his brothers went up at 5 a.m. — again, with three days of provisions and a set of clean clothes for Gan Yu. Along the way, they spotted motorcycles destroyed by boulders, as well as collapsed dwellings and pigsties.
Pigs, chickens, and sheep ran amok. Some places were still slipping, while in others, they had to edge their way over newly formed cliffs without so much as a branch to hold onto. “We just had to trust fate,” says Sun.
By the time they got down, it was already dark. With a heavy heart, Sun texted Gan Yu’s mother: “Auntie, we’re so sorry: we did our very best, but no signs.” Gan’s mother sent him 600 yuan over the phone, which he did not accept.
The same day, two of Gan’s cousins hurried back from Chengdu and solicited the assistance of four volunteer rescue teams online. Over the next 12 days, Gan Guoming and his wife hardly slept. “We never even took off our clothes,” says Guoming.
Gan Guoming says he was a strict father — “Never so much as smiled at him.” No praise for scoring the highest in school either.
In those days of dreadful anticipation, he recalled such memories and felt a pang in his heart. “I should have treated him better,” he says. He thought of the worst-case scenario. “Even if it’s just a pile of bones, I would still bring him back. It would be the last thing I’d do for him.”
Sun Jianhong only found out later that because Gan Yu was unfamiliar with the terrain, he had climbed around to the back of the tallest mountain — far beyond the scope of the rescue squad’s search area.
On one rainy and windy night, Gan Yu finally made it to the grasslands Luo Yong had spoken of. It was bitterly cold and he couldn’t get a moment’s rest. He thought he might not have long left.
The next day, the skies cleared. He saw several dozen cows and sheep; biscuit wrappers and water bottles left by the rescue squad; as well as a motorway in the distance. Again he called out, only silence.
The road downhill had collapsed. After two more stranded days, he decided to brave the slope. On his way down, he found another flat expanse and lay down to sleep. The next morning — Sept. 21 — he heard voices and called out for help.
Ni Taigao, a resident of Yuejin Village on the mountain across from him, heard his cries.
Even after changing his clothes, Gan Yu was still trembling from the cold. A group of villagers cut down two branches and cobbled together a stretcher using nylon canvas bags, on which Gan was carried down the mountain. At a little after 4 p.m., he was airlifted to the county hospital.
Seeing the photos sent by the villagers, Gan Guoming was overwhelmed. “Not a cry, not a laugh. Just all kinds of emotions. I can’t describe it,” he says. On arriving at the hospital, his wife couldn’t stop crying. He thought, “It doesn’t matter if his arms and legs are done for — he’s alive, that’s what matters.”
Hugged tight by his mother, Gan Yu was overjoyed. “Finally, I wasn’t alone anymore,” he says.
That evening, Gan Yu was transferred to the renowned West China Hospital of Sichuan University. He had multiple cartilage damage; his ribs and left fibula were fractured and seriously infected; and there were ulcers in his oesophagus and stomach. His left Achilles tendon also needed surgery.
On Oct. 8, he was released from hospital and returned to his family home in Dazhou. He wants to thank those who rescued him and plans to spend some calm time by the sea. He knows how fortunate he is compared to those who didn’t make it.
A season of grief
Back at Wandong Village, all Peng Rongqiang wants now is to bring the body of his brother Peng Yunjun, 38, back home.
He left behind two sons, who are currently in junior high, and a daughter in elementary school. His wife spends her days working the land as well as looking after his 107-year-old grandfather. They make ends meet on a shoestring budget.
To Peng Rongqiang, his older brother was an honest and competent man. After a two-week stint at the dam, he’d come back and help out with Buddha’s hands and tending to the bees and cows. He was good to him and his family as well.
A few days before the earthquake, Rongqiang had asked him for help harvesting honey. Yunjun said to wait for him.
All that came back was news of his demise.
Peng Yunjun’s wife had to be sent to Chengdu about 250 kilometers away for treatment after her leg was fractured in the earthquake. At first, the children kept asking about him. Now they know, and tears are the only way out. The family decided to keep the news from Peng’s mother.
Rongqiang is stressed as he deals with the aftermath. His family home has collapsed and he has his own two children to take care of. Now that his older brother is gone, he has nine mouths to feed. He heard that those who passed away at the dam were all buried deep there. He plans to bring his brother home when the road is fixed.
Hauler Ma Zhengjun, 32, also perished in the earthquake. Since he was 14, he hopped from one construction site to another, doing odd jobs. On Aug. 29, he returned to Wandong, his home, from a gig in Tibet, but he just couldn’t sit and rest.
Most of his wages were spent on paying off debts. He and his wife Chen Fang had trouble conceiving, so he borrowed close to 110,000 yuan to pay for in-vitro fertilization.
In August, he borrowed another 300 yuan from his younger brother to pay the 600 yuan in interest fees from the bank that month. Their three embryos are still in the hospital and were originally meant to be transplanted in September.
But Chen Fang now finds herself in a difficult situation. “I can’t raise them on my own and I don’t know how I’ll make a living,” she says.
The 1,900 Buddha’s hands their family had planted last year on their 1.5 hectares of farmland were all wiped out in the landslide. On Ma’s phone, which was buried under rubble with him, there are notes about his payback plan: this year, he wanted to clear 20,000 yuan that he’d borrowed from a cousin.
Luo Yong’s wife Yang Xiuqing says Peng Yunjun was Luo’s closest friend. After Luo Yong’s story appeared in the media, some wanted to donate to him, but he turned them down, saying that it would be better to donate to Peng’s family, whose burden was far greater than his own. After all, he is still alive and could earn.
But it’s Luo Yong’s guilt about his 59-year-old brother Luo Kaiqing that cannot be assuaged. He suggested Kaiqing take on this short gig hauling rocks at the plant. The brothers had always been on good terms.
When Luo Yong graduated from junior high, he joined his brother as a migrant worker; and after they forged their own families, they lived close and continued to support one another.
Kaiqing’s son repeatedly urged him to move in with him in the city, but he preferred to stay back and farm. Every day, father and son chatted on a video call, so he could see his grandson. But he didn’t talk about the hauling gig.
The family also kept his death from his 87-year-old father. But at the temporary disaster settlement site, another old man told him that his son had died. For the rest of the day, he didn’t eat.
Choking back tears, Yang Xiuqing told him that Kaiqing had merely hurt his foot and was being treated in Chengdu. She squeezed out a laugh and said, “If my brother-in-law was really in trouble, would we have spent the day here joking with you?”
The fact that he couldn’t manage to retrieve his 86-year-old mother from the rubble and lay her to rest sooner has become Luo Yong’s greatest regret. “Life just can’t go on when I think about that,” he says.
On Sept. 23, his request to return to the village and bury her properly was approved. They walked back along the crumbling roads through the mountains for hours.
Of their former brick house, only one wall of the bathroom still stood. Following the smell, they found her under the rubble where the kitchen used to be. That moment, she’d come back inside after shucking corn in the field and was preparing to cook the harvest.
Left under for 18 days, her body was unrecognizable. “Just bones now,” says Luo. No time to grieve: another landslide could still occur. They had to bury her as quickly as possible — the gravestone would have to wait.
When it’s safe to stay for an extended period of time, Luo hopes to help villagers regroup their livestock. “But many of them have probably died,” he rues.
Yang Xiuqing says that three of their five pigs survived. “Nothing left for us. Nothing,” she sighs with regret. But, a moment later, she reassured herself: as long as they’re alive, there’s a chance to start anew.
Reporters: Chen Canjie and Zhu Ying.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: The aftermath of a landslide in Luding County, Sichuan province, Sept. 7, 2022. VCG)