We arrived in Chengdu on May 16th and were barely into our hotel rooms when we felt an aftershock. The tremors we experienced in Beijing on May 12th were nothing compared to this. And now that we are in the heart of the disaster zone, Chengdu itself seems like paradise compared to the scenes of devastation here.
As soon as we arrived in the disaster zone, our research team has been trying to decide whether or not to join other humanitarian relief workers and help the victims. We could help move things, direct traffic, or go to hospitals to console the survivors. We struggled greatly and painfully with ourselves over this dilemma.
However, the progress of the past couple of days has helped us focus our purpose here. As we head towards Mianyang, the scenes of destruction grow increasingly tragic. It is easy to get disheartened when faced with the immensity of the damage, but our team is reacting in just the opposite way. We are more determined than ever to use our expertise to assist the people here. We will do what we do best by identifying and monitoring the secondary environmental impacts arising from the earthquake. The government and the public need to be warned well in advance of any potential hazards.
At the moment, we are trying to get to chemical factories located within the disaster zone. Today, we visited 9 factories, each in a state worse than the last. Many factories had collapsed walls and we could see right through them to the interior, so civilians could freely enter these unstable structures and expose themselves to an array of reactive chemicals.
We called the Beijing office to discuss what we should do about this. Our colleagues in Beijing immediately notified the government about the situation. At the moment, we decided that the best thing to do is put up warning signs to keep the public away from the vicinity of the factories. We received the electronic version of the signs from our colleagues in Beijing and went to look for a printer.
Still in Shifang, we were surprised to find a printing shop that was open for business. I rushed in excitedly and found a man furrowing his brows at a piece of paper in front of him. I glanced at the piece of paper and saw the words "The people of Shifang…" I finally found out that he was trying to make a sign for his shop window to thank all the volunteers who have come to do relief work.
We have been seeing a lot of these signs in the streets. Whether by the side of the road or in the windows of abandoned cars, the sincere and down to earth locals have placed large signs that simply say “thank you”.
We suggested to the shop owner that he should keep it simple and just say "Shifang Thanks You". He thought that made sense and started to cheer up. Now smiling, he made our warning signs for us and they looked really great – even our colleagues in Beijing were impressed. It seems that, as long as people support each other and are grateful for each other, we can find something to smile about even in the worse of times.
We went to Shuangsheng Town to find the Shengjia Coslettizing Plant to hang up our first warning sign. The outer walls of this factory, which used to produce 30 thousand tons of phosphoric acid, had collapsed. Immediately behind the factory is a gas station. We found the factory manager, Mr. Zeng, who was supportive of our idea to put up the warning sign. Zeng brought us a hammer to nail the sign to the factory walls. His granddaughter looked on by his side. Perhaps I was imagining things, but the child seemed afraid. I smiled at her. After we put up the sign, she seemed a bit more cheerful. She stood watching us leave and waved goodbye. I stuck my head out the window to wave back and shouted a loud goodbye back to her.
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