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To hell and back

Our bus seating 16 of our staff plus eight doctors organised by the Red Cross arrived into Anxian at about 8pm on Thursday night. We were situated in Xiaoba Town in Anxian County about 150 kms north of Chengdu.

It was clear from the start that the earthquake there had caused so much havoc and destruction that the organisers from both the towns and emergency services were battling with problems more vast than they could ever have imagined.

The Red Cross in Chengdu had originally accepted our offer of help, saying that our veterinary team and strong bear workers could be used for medical assistance, delivering emergency supplies and simply helping in offloading boxes of equipment for distribution to those working on the ground. Obviously we were willing to help in whatever way we could.

The village leaders told us on arrival that people were trapped in villages way up on Qian Fo (Thousand Buddha) Mountain where the major road down to the town had been cut off. The main town affected was Xiaoba about 40 miles away with a population of 10,000 people.

Two towns with a total population of 20,000 had been totally cut off from all communication in the mountains, and helicopters had attempted to drop water and food down to the victims. Tragically, the wind had blown the parcels off course and the villagers had virtually nothing. Some survivors were managing to walk down, but no transport could get through. 

The authorities asked us to wait in the bus as they reviewed the situation and would be with us again soon. All around, coaches drew up preparing to ferry the sick and injured into the hospitals in surrounding towns. We were asked to drive to the back of the queue where we would eventually be given instructions as to how we could help. By 11.30pm we were asked to sleep in the bus and be ready for 04.30am where we would drive into the mountain area and await the plan. The coaches continued into the night ferrying people to safety.

At dawn we were advised that we would set off at 06.30 and, in the meantime, the emergency services thoughtfully brought over some sweet bread and hard-boiled eggs for the whole team in preparation for the day. Worryingly we were told that cholera was now a potential problem too.

Driving off to the mountain two hours later, the journey saw us almost breathless with disbelief. Whole villages cut off, houses in rural areas flattened one by one as we drove along cracked and broken roads. Those poor, poor people so badly affected, sitting outside their wrecked houses, faces pale with shock.

Parking at a holding area we were quickly given instructions to get into cars which would drive us through the mountain pass and into the stricken area. More scenes of devastation followed until we arrived at the bottom of Shanqing Mountain. The emergency services suggested we start climbing the mountain with our emergency supplies and simply provide the best help that we could.

With backpacks full of antibiotics, iodine, antiseptics, needles, syringes, swabs, bandages, and water we began the long hike. The climb was hard, dangerous in parts, but nothing of course compared to what families were enduring at the top. At this point I pay the biggest tribute to Rainbow and our kind and thoughtful bear workers who looked after the girls every step of the way.

Despite our protests, back packs and bags were almost forcefully taken off our shoulders and put on theirs, doubling up their load. Even without a backpack the route was hard, with rope provided on one slope to haul ourselves up as no proper foothold was there. Rainbow was on constant walkie-talkie with everyone - making sure that both the “fast” and “slow” teams were all with their buddy members and keeping safe.

After two hours, we had reached a flat and forested area with deep fissures caused by the first earthquake - where we were told that the next climb would take anything from two to five hours by villagers passing us on their way down. Dirty and dishevelled, but alive, they began to reveal the full horror of events since the earthquake struck on Monday. People trapped, and cut off, injured, hungry and thirsty and the Chinese military struggling to reach them by day and by night. 

This was a tough call - it was 10am now and we needed to gauge the amount of time it would take us to walk higher, and then back, in order to get back to base before dark. Just as we were deciding what to do we felt another earthquake tremor and heard almost immediately from the rescue services that they were forbidding us to go on. They advised that the rest of the climb was too treacherous with cavernous holes and mountain broken away, and that also a dam may be about to burst and that we had to come back down the mountain immediately. We could leave all our supplies there and the military would collect them and take them on higher into the mountain. We subsequently heard that the village was in fact another eight hours’ climb away. 

We unpacked all of our supplies - including extra water we had brought along for the climb - and left it there for the military to take on. At that moment two of our workers who had been higher up, making a recce, came back - followed by a Tibetan terrier-type dog that had attached himself to them along the way. We slipped a hastily prepared leash around his neck and brought him down the mountain - asking people along the route if he belonged to any of the survivors. Considering that he had supposedly made a walk of several hours down to where we had picked him up we knew it would be an impossible task to find his owners and made the decision to bring him back to our sanctuary in Chengdu. 

Confirming with our Chinese staff that we had not thought of an inappropriate name we called him “Tremor” - and he is now sitting comfortably and happily beside my desk while I'm typing this blog. Maybe one day - at a more appropriate time - we may write a story for the local media in his village asking if there are family members who are missing their dog.

At the bottom of the mountain Nic and Howard were offering survivors water and food supplied by the Red Cross while an emergency surgery had been set up where people were being given glucose, put on to drips, and having broken bones bandaged and wounds stitched. All the time, people were now trailing down the mountainside - young, old, injured, some being helped by their family members, and some being piggy-backed by the brave young soldiers.

A baby being carried by his mother was declared dead by the medical staff and we watched, helpless, as she walked away with her head bowed. Howard put his arms around an elderly lady whose husband had been trapped in the rubble for four days now - again we were helpless to offer anything but words of comfort to people whose lives would never be the same again.

As the day drew on, we realised that the Red Cross personnel had everything under control and we decided to go back to the holding area for further instructions. 

On arrival, we logged in again with more Red Cross organisers who asked if four of our qualified vet team could go back to the mountain base where we’d just left to help thousands of people who were expected to come down during the rest of the afternoon. Lara, Hayley, Anne-Marie and Judy went back again while the rest of us stayed behind and helped offload medical supplies, food and water from the trucks coming in. In the end, the thousands of people didn’t materialise, but the girls wasted no time or resources and gently bathed feet of the weary survivors and rubbed lotion into cracked and cut hands.

At the end of the day, knowing that there was nothing more we could do, we decided to head back home to Chengdu where we could once again contact central Red Cross and offer our help in the days and weeks to come. As we were leaving, we passed a woman sitting forlornly on a chair and said how sorry we were for what had happened. She smiled and said thank you to everyone for helping them and then burst into tears saying that her grandmother was still left up in the mountain, hurt and unable to move and just waiting for the services to reach her in time. Her beautiful, anguished face will live with me forever.

Just before we left a Red Cross employee came running over to us dangling a six-week old puppy from his fingers and thrusting him into our arms. “Quake” is now with us too - safe and sound in Chengdu.

Now we wait for further direction from the Chinese Red Cross and, in the meantime, have begun a fund not only for them but also for members of our own staff who have lost their family members and houses back home.

Postscript for those of you worried that the authorities are evacuating people from Beichuan because of the dam that has burst. Please don't worry - this is not the dam in Dujiangyiang, which we are worried about and liaising with the authorities at regular intervals.

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