Sichuan Earthquake

Earthquake survivor Li Yan

Lydia Wallace was interning at Danwei when the Sichuan earthquake struck. She is now working for a disaster relief organization in Sichuan and will be publishing stories and photographs about the people she meets. She is also blogging at

Li Yan

Li Yan worked for the government at the population control office of Loushui before the earthquake. Her husband is the head of Liuhu, a small district in Loushui, and fills me in on the details of her district. She is a small, soft-spoken woman, competent and hopeful. When she finishes telling me details about Liuhu, I ask her where she was during the earthquake. She points to one of the gates to the park, not 100meters from where we sit.

“I was riding my bike when the earthquake happened,” she tells me. She dropped her bike to the ground when the earth started shaking and staggered over to cling to a nearby truck. “It was very difficult to walk. I had to hold onto the truck to stay standing.” She was across the street from a five-story building and she watched it crumbled and collapse in a cloud of dust. “It took about 10 seconds and the building was gone,” she said, “no more than 20 seconds.” Twenty-one people were in that building and thirteen died, buried in the rubble. “I know several people who were on the fifth floor, who managed to run down the stairs and get out. Even they don’t know how they escaped.”

Li Yan's daughter in the tent where they now live
As we talks, she calls to her eight-year old daughter inside the tent – “come say hello” - but the little girl won’t come, “She’s just shy.” Like most parents, when the ground stilled on May 12th, her first thought was for her daughter. After the earthquake, she ran towards her daughter’s primary school but the road was filled with huge piles of debris and riddle with cracks and she could not make it through. She retraced her steps, found her husband, and asked him to find her elderly mother. Then she once again headed towards the school.

She had to climb over rubble to make it to the school. There were people running everywhere, she said, and the air was filled with dust. She found the primary school still standing but leaning dangerously to one side. She rushed into her daughter’s classroom on the ground floor and saw a window had broken scattering shards of glass over her daughter’s desk. A few students came into the classroom to retrieve their bags and she told them they had to leave, they couldn’t be in the building, it wasn’t safe.

Outside Li Yan found her daughter’s teacher who said all his students had made it outside safely. “She should be in the playground,” the teacher told her. “So then I knew she was safe.” “Then you found her?” I prompted. “No,” she smiled and looked inside her tent where her daughter sat on the bed riffling through papers. “She found me. She was scared, but she saw me and ran over.” My translator searched for words, “Once she learned her daughter was safe, suddenly she couldn’t see anything. She was at sea.” I tried to imagine the chaos that must have filled the playground.

Li Yan watches her daughter
I asked how she and her daughter were now. She called for the girl once again, but the girl still wouldn’t come and burst into tired tears. Li Yan went inside with a lollypop I offered. The girl wiped her tears away and unwrapped the candy. Li Yan came back outside and apologized. “Is she alright?” I felt guilty. “She’s fine, she’s just shy.” Inside the tent the girl had quieted and was scribbling something with a crayon, the lollypop tucked in one of her cheeks. “And she is tired, sometimes we have trouble sleeping,” Li Yan continues.

“We are worried about her schooling. Summer vacation is coming soon, but she doesn’t want vacation, she wants to make up for her missed classes.” Li Yan tells me she and her husband are very busy working for the government and they don’t have time to take care of their daughter full time. They want to send her to school in Deyang. “But she is scared to go. The school in Deyang has three floors and her class would be on the second floor. She won’t go upstairs anymore.”

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