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Remembering the Tangshan earthquake of 1976

Tangshan earthquake survivors in terror or new quake
By Graham Earnshaw in Tangshan
November 2, 1983

The survivors of the Tangshan earthquake in northeast China in 1976 which killed a quarter of a million people are still living in terror of a repetition of the disaster.

Before the quake hit on that hot summer’s night in July 1976, Tangshan had been just another Chinese coal mining town with a population of about one million.

But in a few seconds, the power of the earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, destroyed over 90 per cent of the city’s buildings and left 248,000 people dead and dying.

It was by far the biggest natural disaster this century, and the horror of it for those who experienced it first hand will never be wiped off their memories.

Tangshan was closed to foreigners for seven years following the disaster, and foreign journalists have only just been allowed to visit the city to find out what really happened.

Mr Yao Guangqing, a city official now involved in reconstruction work, gave a vivid description of his experience during the quake:

“The weather was very hot and close for a few days before the earthquake, and dogs and chickens refused to go inside buildings.

“There was no forecast, no sign that this was going to happen, but there was a noticeable change in people’s behaviour.

“The evening before the quake, there was an outdoor film show, and it took more than four hours to run the entire movie. people were very restless, and the film had to be stopped many times due to fights breaking out amongst the audience.

“As I walked home, I passed a fish pond and noticed the fish jumping up out of the water, indicating that the ground temperature had risen very high.

“That night, I couldn’t sleep, and I lay in bed, just dozing. suddenly I was woken by a bright flash in the sky and the room was brilliantly lit as if by lightning. there was a roaring sound like a very big wind except that the air was still, and intermittent sounds of explosions. Then a great shaking motion began, up and down.

“I was shocked awake by the light, shook my wife awake and spent a long time looking for my slippers. it is my custom to put my slippers on when i get out of bed.

“By the time i reached the door, the up-and-down rolling motion had begun, and the building was rocking so much, i couldn’t get the door open. I went back and clung to the bed. Outside the window, the trees were swinging back and forwards crazily.

“When the rolling motion finished less than a minute later, I opened the door and ran into the courtyard and found that all the buildings around had collapsed.”

The Tangshan coal mines, once owned and run by a British company, are amongst the biggest in China, and 2,200 miners were underground when the quake struck.

A total of 1,951 miners died, but ironically, every single one of those underground made it the surface alive. most miners died in their beds at home, a few died when buildings at the mine collapsed on them.

Most of Tangshan’s residents lived in one-storey brick buildings with sturdy concrete roofs which collapsed almost instantly, trapping and crushing people beneath. Most people died in this way.

At the railway station, many travellers stranded over-night had been sleeping outside, but went inside the station building just before the quake hit to escape a sudden rain shower. those wishing to stay dry mostly ended up dead.

One foreigner who happened to pass through Tangshan a year later described the destruction as being similar to the “worst pictures of bombing during world war two”.

For days afterwards, people struggled to extract relatives and neighbours from the rubble. there were airdrops of biscuits and clothing, and water trucks began to go round the city after the first few days.

The one consolation was that the quake struck in summer — if it had been winter, casualties would have been even higher.

China in mid-1976 was in the midst of political upheavals as Chairman Mao neared death, and many people saw the quake as a sign from the gods that political changes were imminent.

The chairman died six weeks afterwards, but interestingly, not one of the many Mao statues around the city collapsed during the quake, an indication of how strongly they were built.

The Chinese proudly refused all foreign aid — a decision the present administration regrets, and the massive job of rebuilding the city has been carried out entirely on their own.

The cost in human terms was huge. Very few families seemed to have escaped completely, and thousands of paraplegics now fill hospitals in and around Tangshan, their injuries all dating from precisely the same instant.

With thousands of people suddenly turned into widows and widowers, the local Communist Party street committee began organising them into marriages of conveniences to provide some family warmth for the survivors.

“It worked out very well for me,” said one old lady who was married to a worker from a nearby street. “I get on much better with my present husband than the one who died in the earthquake.”

Hundreds of thousands have been rehoused in new, quake- resistant blocks, but large areas of the city are still crowded with temporary shelters which over the past seven years have become almost permanent.

Most of the shelters have roofs consisting of nothing more than tar paper held down by bricks, because residents still don’t dare to put anything heavier above their heads.

Many people strongly resisted moving into the new four- storey housing blocks, even though seismologists say the chance of another strong earthquake in the area is remote.

“We are terrified of another earthquake,” said one old woman, shaking her head. “I can still imagine it now, the roaring sound as it rolled through, and the roof falling.”

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