The Ace of Diamonds: Surviving the 2008 Earthquake

Foreward: This story was authored by Sascha on May 14th 2008, two days after the earthquake which changed our lives. Sitting in a circle of friends in a Chengdu restaurant, we listened intently while Charlie shared intimate details of his incredible experience on Qing Cheng Shan, one of the birthplaces of Taoism. Today being the third anniversary of this catastrophic natural disaster, we decided to bring this post to the forefront of Chengdu Living and to share, for the first time, photos captured during this period by a visiting friend and professional photographer. Be sure to check below the Ace of Diamonds to see those.

An Ordinary Tuesday Morning

On the day of the earthquake in Sichuan Province, Charlie, Ramone and John met at the Shamrock Bar and Grill in Chengdu at 7am and left on motorcycles for a tour of Qing Cheng Mountain. Qing Cheng Mountain is one of the most famous Daoist sites in China, covered in temples, pagodas and teahouses. It is about an hour northwest of Chengdu, right outside of Dujiangyan, an area hit hard by the earthquake.

It was a beautiful day for a motorcycle trip. The sun was shining and there was a slight breeze. The ride up to Qing Cheng Mountain is lined with bamboo-covered hills and small brooks. Bed and breakfast inns line the road snaking up the mountain; temples and pagodas peek out from the cliffs on the way to the White Lotus Daoist Monastery perched atop the peak.

Disaster Strikes

The three friends reached the top of the mountain just after noon and spent a couple hours taking pictures and touring the area. They decided to head back right around three o’clock. They paused for a moment on the way down, parking their bikes and stretching, when the earthquake hit.

“It was like an explosion. The houses started breaking apart all around us, the ground was shaking and glass was flying everywhere,” said Charlie.

Qingcheng Shan earthquake location

This is exactly where the group came to rest when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck

They got on their bikes and tried to navigate down the rolling mountainside. Charlie was in front and was brought to a screeching halt when a landslide took out the road fifty feet in front of him. His friends stopped behind him, and they turned around and headed back up the mountain. They hadn’t gone five city blocks when they came to a house that had collapsed into the street, blocking the way up.

It was surreal. We were trapped and all of the buildings around us were crumbling into dust. The white powder covered everyone’s face, people came out into the road screaming and crying. There were a lot of broken limbs and head injuries. It looked like Ground Zero after 911.

By now, massive boulders and chunks of the old Daoist mountain were tumbling down into the small gorge next to the road. They were far away from where the friends were trapped, but they could see and hear them.

The mountain blew up right in front of us. There were tremors every few minutes. I will never forget the thunderous echo of those boulders as big as two-story buildings crashing down the mountain and into the gorge. We saw a small bridge that crossed the gorge and led to a small hotel with an open field in front of it. We reluctantly crossed it and made our way to the wide grassy area in front of the hotel.

2008 Sichuan quake rubble

The earthquake subsided after five or so large tremors and the friends were safe on the far side of the river in the open field. People wandered around in a daze, silent and staring up at the mountain.

We used wreckage, plastic sheets and bamboo poles to build a small camp on the field and people started wandering over. In every building people had died. There were infants and old people; people trapped in the rubble. Everyone formed groups and tried to enter the buildings to rescue their friends and family, but it was still too dangerous. The tremors still shook the area, boulders fell from the mountain and buildings were still crumbling.

Charlie took a headcount of all the people, 105, and collected supplies. They found 300kg of rice, propane gas and some umbrellas. The camp was in a precarious position. The tremors kept coming, the mountain was falling apart and the sun was going down. As night fell, Ramone, Charlie and John huddled up with the locals and tried to get some sleep.

Qingcheng Shan flowers

Flowers bloom brightly near their makeshift campsite

The Longest Night

It started raining hard when night fell and it was impossible to stay dry. We could hear the boulders falling and felt every tremor. I learned to distinguish the boulders by their sound: the little ones sounded like rushing water and the big ones like thunder and explosions. The tremors always began small and rapid, then grew violent before subsiding again.

The long night lying on the wet ground, listening to the mountain fall apart around them and sensing every tremor, was as terrifying as the initial explosive earthquake. The water pooled around their bodies and they barely slept, waiting for the tremor that would kill them all.

Sichuan quake rubbleThey planned to leave at sunrise, but as dawn fell across the small gorge they were trapped in by fallen boulders on all sides. The whole group stood and simply waited for something to happen. Then a tremor hit and a giant piece of the mountain opposite came crashing into the gorge below. Everybody panicked and began yelling to each other to make a run for it. The group rushed up the near side of the mountain, pulling themselves up through the mud and brush. The very old and the very young raced up and away from the mountain shattering across the gorge.

A Leader Emerges

When they reached the top, they found a path that led to a teahouse with chairs and a wooden shelter. The group gathered under the shelter and started a fire, cooking up rice porridge for breakfast.

All of a sudden, a leader emerged. A man stood up on one of the benches and started yelling at the crowd. I couldn’t understand much, because the dialect is very thick. But from what I could understand, he said: I know the way, I can lead you out, who is with me? The whole crowd yelled “Hao!” (Yes!) and we set out.

The man led the group down a clear path, then veered back down toward the river. The mountainside was muddy and denuded of trees, so it was very slow going. They were closer to the area where the boulders were falling and the raging river was right below them. It was a long, tense hour before they managed to get all of the people across the muddy mountain and down to the road. The road was almost completely destroyed. Pieces had fallen into the river, boulders and landslides blocked the path. The group picked up pace and headed down the mountain.

He led us through the damaged road, past total devastation. The small town on the shoulder of the mountain was completely destroyed. A restaurant I had eaten lunch at thirty minutes before the quake hit was gone; complete wreckage. Temples were destroyed, pagodas knocked over. It was like an abandoned war-zone with buildings half-exposed, but almost no other people. The whole town was flipped upside down.

Man rests on Qingcheng ShanThey followed the road down, often reaching parts virtually wiped out, leaving only one small path for the group to follow. When the group reached the ticketing office of the Qing Cheng Mountain Tourism Area, they joined about 500 people waiting in line. Local and military police organized everybody into two lines and guided them down the mountain. The roads and all paths were demolished. Everyone had to hang onto branches and bamboo and climb down a precarious, muddy path. Ramone and Charlie carried an old woman with head trauma along a path that hugged the cliff. She was in high-heels and ankle deep in mud. It was still raining and the tremors kept up throughout the day.

Headless Buddha on Qingcheng Shan

Hiking down the mountain revealed countless surreal sights like this

The road resumed farther down the path. Police and motorcycles started appearing on the road and the survivors stumbled past another destroyed village. When they reached the foot of the mountain, hundreds of people were milling about with their belongings in plastic bags, looking for transportation out of Qing Cheng Mountain. This is where the three friends split from the group.

We found a car, but he did not have enough gas to get back to Chengdu and nobody was selling any gas, so we decided to go to Dujiangyan. We had no clue about the earthquake- where it was centered, how the rest of Sichuan had been affect or anything. We were shocked when we reached Dujiangyan. The city was in total chaos. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded the streets and military units were marching in formation carrying shovels; they were on the scene very quickly. Military and police vehicles flashed their lights and every open space in the city was covered in a tent. The buildings were not all totally demolished, but every building had sustained extensive damage. The bus station was closed and there were people everywhere with bags waiting to leave.

Clutching The Ace of Diamonds

They found a car back to Chengdu and listened to the radio on the hour-long drive back, learning of the extent of the damage done by the earthquake. A few hours later, Charlie sits in the Sultan Restaurant in south Chengdu and shakes his head at the experience. He pulls out an ace of diamonds and shows it to me.

This helped me get through, man. It was the only happiness I felt during that night. It was cold and wet and terrifying, but when I found that pack of cards I just felt a surge of happiness. I told everybody: Hey look, a deck of cards, we can really use this.

He shakes his head and laughs.

Youtube Clip of the Quake Striking

A Chinese-language news broadcast is embedded below. It’s live footage of the earthquake filmed by a member of the group on Qing Cheng Shan. Titled “Most terrifying live footage of Sichuan earthquake by far”, the video already has been viewed by hundreds of thousands around the world.

More Photos Taken After the Earthquake

The photographs below were captured after the earthquake by visiting photographer and friend, Julia Zimmerman. We returned to the place where Charlie was during the earthquake along with Ramone and retraced their steps, capturing photos of the locations. We’ve also included some photos taken in a nearby town and outside of Chengdu.

2008 Sichuan Quake survivor

Boy on Qingcheng Shan stays dry

Residents wait out the aftershocks outside

Residents wait out the aftershocks outside

Life interrupted on Qingcheng Shan

Mountain resident waits out the aftershocks outside

Returning to Qingcheng Shan

Ramone, Sascha's wife, Charlie, and Sascha

Walking up the mountain

Walking up the mountain road on Qingcheng Shan you could see enormous cracks in the road

Mountain building reduced to rubble

Many buildings on the mountain were reduced to rubble like this

Sichuan earthquake survivors

Sichuan earthquake survivors look on at photos of the destruction

Bicyclist rides past tents

A bicyclist rides past tents set up to house earthquake refugees

Surveying the destruction

Police survey the destruction left behind by the Sichuan earthquake

Reconstruction crew takes a break to eat

The orange-clad reconstruction crew takes a break to eat

Chinese soldiers

Chinese soldiers walk through an affected town with flag waving

Man surveys damage

A man stops to examine the destruction wrought by the earthquake

Refugee camp

Observing an earthquake refugee camp. Five months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Destroyed hotel

This was the courtyard where Charlie and company established their camp. Some supplies remain

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. After living in Chengdu on and off for twelve years, he now lives in Minneapolis.

17 Responses to “The Ace of Diamonds: Surviving the 2008 Earthquake”

  1. On this day I’ll always remember the bad things that happened.

  2. man great post … crazy to see it all over again … still kinda gets me when i read about the kids

    • Charlie

      Yeah it is. I have vivid memories of telling the story with Tenzin, Aliya, you etc all in a circle in the back room at the Sultan.

      Thanks for writing this so well, also. I intended to write about the whole experience myself but didn’t feel much of a need after reading this. It looks like it was meant to be put with these photos that took on the trip to the mountain weeks later.

  3. for sure, that whole trip up the second time to take those pics was to recover your motorcycle dude … lol

  4. Ray

    Man, I just wanna forget that day. My story can be summed up in two words: scared shitless….

  5. Ray

    Oh man, my story is unexceptional. just glad to get out OK and not lose any friends. Others were not so lucky…R.I.P

  6. Brendan

    Awesome pictures. A life changing experience no doubt.

  7. An amazing record of the earthquake that day/night/day from Qing Cheng Mountain.
    I have had the opportunity to visit many of the cities and towns as part of the earthquake reconstruction project management team for the foreign funded infrastructure projects, as well as Qing Cheng Shan itself.
    This story and my visit last year to Old Beichuan has given me a tremendous insight to the first responders and the massive disaster that was Wenchuan earthquake.

  8. I was in Beijing that day sitting on the 23rd floor of an office tower at Sanyuan Qiao. Even there, almost 2000 km aways, hat stands toppled over, everyone paniced and tryed to get our of the building as quickly as possible……. In light of this I am hardly can imagine what you guys went through being right in the middle of it. Not sure about how many of you have seen it before, but there is a documentary about the earthquake on Youtube which goes straight to your guts.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1riQZpDQK0

    Check it out

    • Charlie

      Wow, I haven’t seen this before!

      I heard from a friend on the 26th floor of an office building in Chengdu that he could see all of the buildings swaying outside through the window. I’m surprised to hear that the impact was so great in Beijing (quite a distance away).

      I’ve been in earthquakes before, but never anything even remotely close to this. You couldn’t really stand up. I was crouching on the ground, frantically looking around in all directions to identify threats. Not just the power of the quake but its length was also stunning – it seemed to just go on and on. When it subsided, we got on our motorcycles and tried to get down the mountain ASAP, but we were cut off on both ends of the road by fallen debris. You can me on my motorcycle in the Youtube clip above (I’m on the black dirt bike).

      Probably the craziest experience of my life so far.

  9. Ive seen the documentary that Phillip is talking about and I was wondering how the police and milletary reacted when you went back and took photo’s and all. In the doc. they have a lot of trouble with it because they are (partly) a foreign crew, also the documentarymaker isnt so good off now from what ive heard (hes a local)…because lot of critique on the party in the docu… Touching docu.. Further more id like to say that this is an terrific and touching article and would like to thank ChengduLiving for it!

  10. I’m surprised I hadn’t come across this until now. Amazing recounting Sascha, and Charlie, man… bit of an understatement, but glad you lived to tell the tale brother.

  11. Amazing story. You’re lucky to be alive.

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