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NPR’s Siegel Describes China Earthquake Experience

May 13, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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NPR's Robert Siegel, who experienced Monday's earthquake in China firsthand while on assignment in China, provides an update on the situation there.

GWEN IFILL: The deadly quake in China. We start with a report from the devastated Sichuan province.

Earlier today, I spoke by telephone with Robert Siegel, one of the hosts of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Siegel and his NPR colleagues were on a reporting trip in Chengdu when the quake struck yesterday.

Robert Siegel, welcome.

ROBERT SIEGEL, National Public Radio: Hello, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Where were you when the quake hit?

ROBERT SIEGEL: I was in my hotel room, which is on the 27th floor. And the hotel was moving very vigorously. And I made a dash down 27 flights, figuring out somewhere in the middle that this was an earthquake.

GWEN IFILL: Give us a sense of the scale of the destruction you witnessed.

ROBERT SIEGEL: The destruction is just terrible. In small mountain villages, north of the city where I am staying, the provincial capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, in these villages, one hears stories of towns in which entire villages are buried under avalanches, in which 90 percent of homes are destroyed.

That was the case in the village I visited today. It’s called Gui Xi. And it’s a place that you have to drive about five hours from Chengdu to get to. And you have to go through a mountain road of hairpin turns, which I can only imagine would be a fairly hair-raising ride in the best of times.

And at the end of a rather long drive, I came to villages where it was just one heartbreaking story after another of people who had lost their homes, lost their relatives, in some cases lost their children.

The earthquake occurred at about 2:30 in the afternoon here. It was during school hours. And so if a school building fell, then obviously the children inside were most of the victims.

And what you see in these little towns, in addition to homes destroyed and great efforts to deal with it, by the way, you know, first aid stations, doctors out bandaging people up. The army has gotten in pretty effectively to get the injured into ambulances and back to the cities.

But what you see there and just about everywhere that’s very troubling, even beyond the tragic stories, enormous numbers of people are living under makeshift shelters, which they create by throwing a huge plastic tarp over some rods of bamboo that they suspend in the trees.

And you just see entire extended families, three generations, sitting under a plastic tarp, fending as best they can with food and water. And today it rained most of the day, so it was doubly uncomfortable.

And somehow all of these people who don’t expect to go back to their homes in their current condition have to be taken somewhere. And it’s not clear when that will happen.

And, of course, everything in China happens at a scale of population that’s exponential by our experience. So the numbers are colossal.

Impressive effort now underway

GWEN IFILL: What is the relief effort like? Is there a big presence of relief workers? Or is this something where people are just still coping with literally the emotional and the physical aftershocks?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, what I saw in the night right after the earthquake was a very impressive relief effort. The authorities declared priority No. 1 was, of course, finding those who were trapped underground and also treating the wounded.

The authorities took over the northbound expressway, a very good, new road that leads north out of Chengdu, out of this, the big provincial capital, and used it for emergency vehicles only. And they would go up north, load up with people, and then turn right around, and speed back to either Chengdu or other places where there would be a hospital or some place to care for people.

Today, just the places that I saw, there are many, many, many truck loads yet to be brought out of villages where the houses have been devastated.

GWEN IFILL: So it sounds like we're still some distance away from normalcy.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Yes, I think that the city of Chengdu, which had the day off, along with the rest of the province, I guess, is relatively normal. There were, I gather, some fatalities here, but the city is pretty much functional.

But there are other entire cities, some of which I drove through and passed today, where, again, people are just living outside their homes. There's kind of a rounded roof tile that people commonly use on two-story homes or one- story homes here. You would recognize it at once, and it's evidently rather lightly affixed to the roof.

And everywhere you see that these buildings were shaken and the tiles came flying off, leaving an exposed roof and a pile of tiles in front of the building. Well, people just don't want to go inside a building like that.

And they invariably see some cracks in the wall or they've felt the building groan when they were inside it, and so there's a massive repair and rebuilding job facing the country, after the much more terrible tasks of rescue, and recovery, and identifying the victims that comes first.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Siegel, National Public Radio, thank you very much.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Thank you, Gwen.