Friday, March 24, 2017

Surviving the Great China Earthquake

In 1976 the Chinese Government invited a group of Congressional staff members to visit. I was chosen to be part of the delegation.  The prospect was exciting -- exactly how exciting I had no idea.

On our second night in Beijing staying on the 8th floor of the Peace Hotel, shown left, July 28, our group of about ten, with escorts, were treated to dinner at one of the city’s famed restaurants in which every course employs some part of the duck.   Ours, as I recall, was called the “Sick Duck Restaurant,” because it was located near the main hospital.   Appropriately, I was sick that night with terminal indigestion, having eaten much too much fatty duck, and was staggering from the bathroom back to bed when the most deadly earthquake of modern times and one of the three most deadly in recorded history, struck at 3:42 a.m.

Above is a chart of the severity of the shake on the Richter Scale – at the epicenter 8.2., in Beijing, a 6. It would become known as the Tanshang Earthquake for the major Chinese city it destroyed, killing up to half a million people – the devastation shown below.  Although we were 140 kilometers from the epicenter the earthquake made an indelible impression.

It began with a series of blinding flashes in the sky; white, yellow and orange balls of light exploded everywhere.  My first thought was that the Russians had attacked China with nuclear weapons.  My second was:  “Those bastards--why did they have to wait until I got here.”  My next thought was:  “How the hell do I get home?”  My fourth:  “No way.”

As soon as the lights stopped, the room began shaking and a deafening noise like a dozen out-of-control locomotives filled the air.  My roommate, Dick Moose, shouted, “It’s an earthquake.  Get under the bed.”  I made an attempt but the bed was only five inches off the floor and my hind end would not fit under no matter how frantically I struggled.  I lay flat on my ailing stomach, with only my legs protected, and said a simple prayer:  “Lord, stop the earthquake or we’re all dead.”

According to the Marine guard at the U.S. Embassy, the shaking lasted for 45 seconds -- it seemed more like an eternity.   When it stopped, Dick -- who kept his wits about him-- yelled, “We have got to get everyone out of here.”  Luckily we both had flashlights, bought in Japan after Dick remarked something about the lights always going out in Asia.  We dressed quickly, pulling on pants and shoes, and set out to round up others in our party.

We were on the 8th floor and except for our lights, it was pitch dark.   I gathered a group of three or four and by flashlight we slowly made our way down the stairs.  One woman had hold of my arm so tightly that the marks of her nails remained in my skin for several days.  We assembled along with dozens of other hotel guests on the front lawn of the hotel.  In the photo right I am on the right, still wearing my pajama tops. We never went back to our rooms.  Our hosts, fearing we would be hurt in an aftershock, packed for us and brought us our clothes.   Ambulance sirens wailed constantly.  Everywhere Chinese by the hundreds were streaming into the streets.

As daylight appeared, it became clear that damage was light in Beijing despite the severity of the quake.  During the day as we moved about the city the demeanor of the people was remarkable.   Residents had been ordered out of their homes for fear of aftershocks.  Everywhere families were busy along the sidewalks constructing lean-tos made from telephone poles and blue plastic tarpaulins.  As the shelters were completed, mattresses and cooking pots were added.  Mothers nursed babies, students read books, and dinner proceeded almost as if nothing unusual had happened.  Despite the heavy rains that fell that day, Chinese stoicism seemed universal.

Our hosts informed us that our trips to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall had been canceled and that instead the next day we would be transported by train from Beijing to points south and west.   We were given a choice of sleeping accommodations for the night:  The soccer stadium, our automobiles, or mattresses on the floor of the ballroom of the defacto U.S. Embassy. (Full diplomatic relations had not yet been restored.)  Without hesitation we chose the Embassy, shown here.

 Even before the earthquake the U.S. Ambassador had planned a cocktail party for our group at the Embassy that evening, inviting high level Chinese officials who could speak English.  Among them was Tan Wen-Sheng, the U.S. educated protégé of Madame Mao who became “Honey Huan,” a character in the Doonesbury comic strip.  I was conversing with her when, some 15 hours after the initial quake, an aftershock registering 7.1 on the Richter scale jolted the room, sent table lamps flying, and pictures pitching perpendicular to the wall.   Although well fortified by martinis by this time, I was aware that the ground I was standing on had turned to jelly.  Abruptly, the party ended.

That night as we lay to sleep on bare mattresses, I could feel each aftershock through the ballroom floor.   At about midnight came a sharper than usual shock.  Instantly I was drenched in sweat.

The day after the earthquake a train was ready to take us to Honan Province south of Beijing.  It was stocked with the two provisions we had ordered:  plenty of beer and yellow-meat watermelon. Thus provisioned, we were hustled out of the capital city. Days of perspiration were to follow, not from anxiety, but from the extreme and unrelenting heat of July in East Central China.  Referencing a popular food product our delegation adopted the name “Shake and Bake.”

Postscripts:  The earthquake lights have been remarked on by many observers to the Tanshang disaster.  They show up in only the most violent quakes and until the 1960s when actually photographed in Japan, as shown here, they were considered mythic by scientists.   Various theories of their origin exist, but one that seems most plausible involves quartz-bearing rocks.  Those rocks are known to generate an electrical charge when subjected to extreme mechanical stress.   As shock waves rolled out from the epicenter, the rocks were squeezed, resulting in the bright flashes.   Still, however, our Chinese hosts seemed to enjoy hearing my story about mistaking the earthquake for a Russian nuclear attack.


  1. WOW!! What a scary situation.

  2. Dear JHD: You can say that again. But it all happened so fast that initially it did not seem so. It was only that night as the aftershocks continued that I began to sweat.