In rubble, Chinese couple clung to each other, and to life
SHIFANG, China: At the moment of greatest despair, Wang Zhijun tried to kill himself by twisting his neck against the debris.
Breathing had become harder as day turned to night. The chunks of brick and concrete that had buried him and his wife were pressing tighter by the hour, crushing them. Their bodies had gone numb.
Then there was the rain, sharp and cold, lashing at them through the cracks.
"I don't think I can make it," he told his wife, Li Wanzhi, his face just inches from hers, their arms wrapped around each other.
She sensed he was giving up. "If God wants to kill us, he would have killed us right away," she said. "But since we're still alive, we must be fated to live."
And they lived. They were pulled from the rubble of their collapsed six-story workers' dormitory 28 hours after last Monday's earthquake, spared the end met by at least 32,000 others.
Their tale of survival is also one of a rekindled love, of two people who might have died had they been trapped alone.
They whispered to each other. They talked of their 14-year-old daughter — who would take care of her? They recalled their life together, the shape of it before and the shape of it to come, all the changes they would make if they ever got out alive.
Days after their rescue, they lay in separate beds in Shifang People's Hospital, a loud place with too many patients and too few doctors. Wang's stout body was covered in cuts scabbed over with blood and pus, and he drifted in and out of sleep while talking to a reporter.
Li, 38, her petite frame dressed in a pink nightgown, spoke softly and stared at the ceiling with tears in her eyes. A white blanket covered her left side, where her arm had just been amputated. She had pleaded with a doctor not to cut it off, but there had been no choice: It had turned gangrenous after being trapped beneath Wang in the collapse.
Yet they were both thankful. "My colleagues said, 'You're the lucky one. You don't know how many people died,' " Li said of the reaction of her fellow factory workers.
Of the 28 hours, Wang said, "It was more terrifying than facing the god of death." Like for millions of Chinese, the life they knew was completely eradicated at 2:28 p.m. last Monday, when the 7.9-magnitude earthquake sent wave after wave of tremors through the river valleys and glaciated mountains of Sichuan Province, one of the most beautiful corners of China.
Wang, 40, had just returned home two days earlier, after traveling around the country for half a year and trying his hand at small businesses. He had lost a lot of money. He and his wife rarely spoke. He spent the Chinese New Year in the city of Guangzhou by himself, skipping China's most important family holiday.
Wang is the kind of itinerant worker found in China by the millions, wandering from city to city in these boom years, and so it was chance that brought him home two days before the earthquake.
Li was raising their daughter, Xinyi, on her own while working at a chemical factory in the town of Luoshui. "My husband doesn't have a stable life," Li said. "He goes wherever he can get a job. I told him, 'Why don't you have a rest? Stay away from business. Just try and enjoy life for a while.' "
Last Monday, she and her husband had just sat down in her fourth-floor apartment to watch a police soap opera on DVD when the dormitory, which houses dozens of factory workers, began shaking violently.
He flung an arm around her as they sprinted for the bathroom eight feet away. The entire building collapsed right as they got there, knocking them to the ground. The wooden bathroom door slammed against Wang's back. Clouds of dust filled their lungs.
They were frightened but did not feel any pain at first. "In our minds, everything was clear," Li recalled. "We were buried in the rubble.
"As a woman, as a mother, my first thought was, 'What about my daughter? Who'll take care of her if I die?' " she said.
They lay entwined on their sides, not knowing whether they were bleeding or any bones had been broken. A large chunk of concrete loomed inches above their heads. Shifting their bodies, they knew, could cause it to drop down on them.
Li's left arm was wedged beneath her husband. The pain was excruciating at first, until the arm went numb.
"My mobile phone is in my pants pocket," said Wang, who was wearing a tracksuit. "See if you can get it out."
With her free hand, Li managed to fumble it out, but there was no signal. She thought she heard her cellphone ringing elsewhere in the rubble. It rang over and over for a while. Family and friends must be calling, she thought. Then it stopped.
They tried yelling, even though it was hard to breathe. "Save us! Save us!" they screamed. They yelled whenever they heard any noise outside. Li told her husband, "We need to keep our heads clear and pay attention to what's happening."
Li tried to focus her mind on only two things: How can I get out? How can I stay alive? But of course she and Wang thought of their family and friends, whether they were suffering in the same way. Their daughter was at school when the earthquake hit. Their parents and siblings, mostly farmers, also lived in the area.
"I want you to make it out," Wang said. "We have a child, and I want you to raise her."
Through a crack in the rubble, they could see the light fading. The rubble was moving. It was pressing down, slowly crushing them. They no longer felt any pain because their entire bodies had gone numb. Nor did they feel hunger and thirst.
They had to take turns breathing. When Li took a deep breath, her chest expanding, Wang held his breath.
Li looked at the cellphone at 11 p.m. Still no signal. But at least they had the phone, their one lifeline. They kept it on. The battery meter showed one bar of power left.
The cold rain started sometime during the night. Wang could hear it pounding the debris like a drum: da-da-da-da-da. It came down through the cracks. Wang also heard other noises, stones crashing against stones. Were those landslides?
They looked again at the cellphone. The battery had died.
"I gave up hope that night," Wang recalled. "No one was going to save us." He thought about what it would be like to die slowly, minute by minute, and he made a decision. "I tried bending my neck against the wall to kill myself," he said.
That was when Li told him that since God had not killed them right away, they were meant to live. She also told him he was born in the Year of the Monkey, and monkeys can live for 500 years. She said he had to remember their daughter.
Maybe he would spend more time at home, he said. Settle down, see more of their daughter.
"Let's try to get some sleep and save our energy," she said.
But they were too terrified to fall asleep.
Then slowly the daylight began coming back through the crack. Hours later, they heard crunching footsteps on the rubble. Their voices were hoarse, but they began yelling again.
Someone shouted back, "Who are you?"
Li recognized her boss's voice. "I'm Li Wanzhi," she said.
Then came the words, "Hold on, we're going to save you right now." A constellation of voices, some familiar, swirled overhead. They could not understand what was being said, only that the people were weighing different plans.
At last, they heard rumbling of heavy machinery, which went on for perhaps five or six hours, the couple guessed. Afterward, a straw came down through the crack, and they took turns sipping sugar water.
"They were using their hands now," Wang recalled. "The crack was getting bigger." Then they heard rescue workers say that only one of them could be pulled out at a time. That risked rubble collapsing onto the other. But there was no other way.
The workers told the couple they were going to pull Li out first. "I can't feel my legs, so I think I'm stuck under something," Li told them. "You should get my husband out first."
Two pairs of hands grabbed him, and within minutes he was out of the hole and being led to an ambulance, where his sister was waiting.
The rubble had not collapsed farther into the hole. On the contrary, Li felt a sudden expansion of space when her husband was lifted out, and now she could breathe more easily. But her lower body was still pinned down by heavy bricks. "Can you get some tools to pull me out?" she asked.
They said no. And at that moment, beyond exhaustion, she gave them the signal to get her out any way they could: "Well, I can't feel anything anyway."
She felt hands gripping her. After a powerful tug, she was out, just like that. In the ambulance, she was put down on a bench opposite her husband. "I wanted to hug him, but I couldn't move my body," Li said.
Nearly a week after the rescue, both were still in tremendous pain. Wang said it felt as if his heart were being squeezed. He still cannot sit up on his own.
Every aftershock terrifies Li. She thinks of being buried alive again. No one has told her how many of her co-workers were killed. But their daughter was unhurt, and she refused to leave their side in the hospital.
They have no home to return to, but that is another problem for another time.
"The only thing we had was each other," Wang said. "We encouraged each other to live on, and we said once we got out, we'd live a good life and care for each other. Now we have a new start."