20080514: notes on the big shake

There is so much construction here in Chengdu that most people just thought it was a large lorry going past that was making the windows shake a bit. Then it got a bit looney tunes and I saw a few people doing a Scooby Doo exit (“Yikes!”) and then

someone said “earthquake,” at this point my natural instinct for heroically saving

other people came in, and I sprinted for the door.

It’s all very well saying ‘just take cover in a door frame’ if you have a proper door frame in a well constructed building. Our building survived OK, but you are not to know that when you know it is another one that was put up in 20 minutes (OK, 20 days) by pumping concrete into wooden forms (why bother prefabricating when you can just pump it in?). In effect most buildings here are built of frames of this pumped concrete (concrete beams like the edges of a cube). No doubt this is good if you trust the quality inspection system and attention to detail in a construction sector.I spoke to a couple of Kiwis (plenty of earthquakes there) and they have been trained to shelter

under desks and then door frames. Er… not here. One teacher got all his kids to shelter under the desks (chipboard veneered desks which make IKEA construction look like quadruple reinforced carbon fibre) and then he quickly came to his senses and employed plan B (for ‘Bugger off out of here!’)

We are on the 2nd floor (3rd floor in ‘foreign’) so I think everyone in our offices now has a personal best for leaving the office (even quicker than on Friday evening, or any start of lunch break, which is very impressive).Then we all got out into the middle of

the dual carriageway (cars had stopped – amazing that drivers here looked at anything at all) and felt OK until we realized that standing on a road does not mean standing in a place that cannot give way. They are building a metro/underground system here, so there is plenty of hollow distance down there somewhere.

Once we had checked everyone was out, we sent everyone home and then with our IT bloke (Ben, English guy) we made our way to the centre of Chengdu. Kirsten was on the 26th floor in her office and Ben’s girlfriend works in a highrise block in the main square.

Luckily both had got out and made their separate ways home. Scary moments were had by them. Kirsten could not walk in their office, such were the tremours up there. Very very scary. She’s in a very modern office block with companies like Chevron and Standard Chartered Bank, but you just never know, and it’s not easy at a moment

like that to stand calmly and reassure people with, “Don’t worry everyone. The construction standards used to design and build this mini skyscraper are some of the best in the world. Oh, mind that flying computer. Coffee and biscuits anyone?”

Ben and I made our way on our trusty wheels of steel. He was on his trusty electric scooter (it’s a nice one – at least 4 different attempts to steal it from the company car park in the past few months. It now has to be chained to the main water pipe by the

security guard) and I was on the bicycle. Our office is on First Ring Road

(‘inner circular’ ?)so we just headed round that and then it’s just about a kilometre to K’s office.The streets were full of people and occasionally a surge of them would spill out into the road. In general, and completely unexpectedly, the general

discipline and calmness were astonishingly good. People just made their way, most walking, many driving, many cycling/scootering, and there were few road accidents – amazing, given the number of people (imagine stock footage of horror/disaster movies with everyone pouring out onto the streets – it really was like that, except Godzilla never turned up, and Tommy Lee Jones didn’t divert any lava). Luckily for me a text message had got through telling me that Kirsten was OK and that she was waiting for me outside her office.

The mobile phone network had buckled under the pressure. Scotty was calling from the engine room, “We don’t have the switches, captain.” A few texts were getting through. Some people were OK making international and ‘out of Sichuan province’ calls, but calls in Sichuan were just not getting through. A friend of Kirsten’s is visiting us here. She was due to land in Chengdu after a trip to JiuZhaiGou (beautiful valleys –

seen in … Tiger, Dragon (leaping, crouching, pooing?)) and is now in Kunming, in

Yunnan province, south of here. Free hotel, and Kunming is a nice place. That’s fine, except that her family in the States thought she might be dead. We watched CNN dredge for information, but the fact that someone’s chandeliers were trembling in Beijing

was cold comfort for the parents and brother of Sarah, who is out of the USA for the first time. Hilarious situation! She’s v. independent and is fine, by the way – we managed to speak to her early this morning.

After hanging around outside Kirsten’s office for more than an hour, another text got through saying she was heading to the Shangri La Hotel. That figured, given the quality of their G and Ts. I met a friend on the river bank outside the hotel, who, by-the-by

mentioned that if the river water seeped into the nearby hotel’s foundations, then the whole place was toast (rather crumply, soggy toast) so I gave him a lift on the back of my bicycle along 1st Ring Road. The road sweepers were still working. That is some strict boss. [”Hello boss, there’s been a major earthquake. People here are fleeing for their lives, expecting highrise blocks to collapse on them at any moment, that’s if the dodgily constructed roads don’t just give way, sucking tens of thousands of people into a concrete-block death hole” “If I find a single ice cream wrapper, you’re dead! Get back to your broom” “OK. I apologise for my lack of commitment.”]

I dropped Richard off at the Shamrock the local expat boozer, and headed off home. Still masses of people, still all v. organised, no excessive barging/pushing or panic. I found Kirsten. They wouldn’t let us back into our apartment block – potential gas leaks, so we were forced to go to the boozer. A few beers, a quick email from a friendly owner of a laptop sneaking into a local restaurant’s wireless network, and some shared stories later, and we were feeling better. We went back to the house, fed the (terrified) cats and then went out to meet the Japanese sales agents visiting our factory. They were at the Shangri La, and security was tight – most streets now were

lined with people ready to bed down for the night, since all were scared that the predicted aftershocks would collapse the buildings. Many spent the night in their cars, others in tents, others just on the side of the road, on the pavement, on any patch of space available.

We went back to our place at midnight, didn’t sleep that well – some rather trembly aftershocks, lots of phone calls (including from USA – Sarah (our guest)’s family and K’s family).