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Nanchong workers safe but shaken


A family finds refuge for the night on the campus lawn of China West Normal University.

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Outdoor Sleeping
A basketball court serves as home as Nanchong locals avoid the risk of aftershocks.

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Update, May 16: 9:45 am CST: Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers Todd and Jeanette Hanson are on the ground in Nanchong, near the earthquake epicenter, and are responding with immediate medicine and other supply needs. Canadians can help by forwarding gifts to “China Fund - Sichuan Earthquake Appeal.” Ongoing gifts will also be needed to assist with long term spiritual care and compassion ministry in the affected areas. These funds will be collaboratively deployed in consultation with our partner, Mennonite Partners in China. Donate online, call 1-866-888-6785, or mail your gifts to China Fund - Sichuan Earthquake Appeal, Mennonite Church Canada, 600 Shaftesbury Blvd., Wpg. MB R3P 0M4.

May 15, 2008
-Todd Hansen

SICHUAN, China — It's one thing to swing back and forth on the swinging bridge at Little Red River Park near my home town of Prince Albert, Sask. but quite another to experience the same sensation while standing in the middle of a Nanchong city soccer pitch as the windows of surrounding office buildings bulge in and out.

Moments earlier, just after our ten-year-old daughter Claire and her classmate left for afternoon classes, a strange noise drew us to the window. It sounded like hail but the sky was clear. My wife Jeanette and I called the girls to come back inside and then the floor began moving beneath our feet.

We gathered under the sturdiest doorway, but as our neighbours rushed past, they told us to get outside. We joined the stream of people headed toward the nearby soccer pitch – retirees, primary school students on their way to class and university students, many of them obviously fresh from their naps.

Tears flowed as we huddled together with the ground shaking beneath our feet. The tremor seemed to last a long time, but it couldn't have been more than five minutes. When the ground finally stopped shaking, we tried to comfort hysterical university students and help kids attempt to phone their parents on overloaded mobile phone networks. Most could not get through.

I am so thankful that our family went through the quake and its aftermath together.

Our five-year old daughter, Kate, comes home from kindergarten for lunch every day, but most of her classmates have lunch and a nap at school. Kate wanted to make sure that everyone was okay. When the quake hit, the supervising teacher and her assistant would have had to wake up about 60 kids and usher them outdoors to the basketball court. Despite how chaotic the experience must have been, by the time Kate and I found them, everyone was calm and happy.

Although the teachers knew their students were all safe, the parents did not. Four “grades” of kindergarten classes and 30,000 university students on campus meant a lot of parents worrying about the safety of their children. We heard reports of parents waiting for news at the edges of collapsed schools in areas closer to the epicentre as cranes and rescue workers searched through the rubble. It's unimaginable.

I have over 500 students from all over the country, but most of them are from Sichuan. Because classes have not resumed since the quake, I have yet to hear how many of their families have been affected. I’m sure there are many. A friend of mine from Dujiangyan finally got word that her family is alright, but her ancestral home of seven generations is completely demolished. They remain on the property, living in cars.

Another friend grew up in the county next to the epicentre. He wasn't able to get any specific information about his parents, but eventually discovered that no one in his county has been reported missing or dead. So his parents are okay — probably.

It is unsettling to read internet news headlines about where you live that report “10,000 dead.” But in some strange way, those headlines made the tragedy more real to me. I expected that there would be many casualties, but as the count rose into the thousands, I dismissed it as exaggeration.

I was wrong, and I'm afraid that it will get worse.

In 1976, a quake of a similar magnitude directly hit Tangshan, a city in north-eastern China, killing almost a quarter of a million people. A few years later, a smaller quake hit Nanchong. For two weeks after that, people slept under the stars, afraid of being trapped indoors by an aftershock. Last night, Nanchong parks, squares, riverbanks, and sidewalks were covered with sleeping mats. On our campus at China West Normal University, the beautiful, normally off-limit lawns were the first areas to be covered with mats, blankets, and pillows. Ping pong tables also filled up quickly, and then students turned to basketball courts and sidewalks for sleeping facilities.

Surprisingly, there was a very festive air to the occasion. Some students studied under battery-powered lights, but most of them behaved as though they were at an outdoor concert, waiting for the music to start.

People are carrying on as best they can. Campus clean-up crews were out almost immediately, sweeping up glass from shattered streetlight globes and shovelling up fallen roofing tiles. Street vendors have pushed, ridden, or dragged their carts and tricycles to the areas where people are congregating out in the open. Watermelon season has just begun and that served many people for supper, since restaurant cooks were just as reluctant as everyone else to go indoors to cook.

Extra blood donation buses were parked in convenient locations, and there were at least 200 people lined up at the two buses parked by the city's central park. A convoy of five huge trucks, labelled, "From the people of Nanchong to those in the quake-affected areas" pulled out of Nanchong 24 hours after the quake. Medical personnel from various cities across Sichuan are on the way to work in the most severely affected areas, serving 36-hour shifts.

We have no opportunity to take part in any of the rescue operations, but Mennonite Partners in China – our ministry partner of Mennonite Church Canada – will be involved in rebuilding projects, working with local churches and government agencies. For now, we're basically just spending time with our campus neighbours and helping out when we can.

Editor’s note: Todd and Jeanette Hanson live in Nanchong with their two daughters, Claire, age 10, and Kate, age 5. They have been serving in China since 1994 as Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in partnership with Mennonite Partners in China (MPC). Philip and Julie Bender, are also in China with MC Canada Witness/MPC. Regarding the May 12 earthquake, Philip sent the follow email:

“In my 8 a.m. class today (Tuesday), we spent the first half talking about the quake and the students' feelings. Most have been very rattled, though none reported having any family in the areas of heavy damage. As scary for some of them as the tremors was the cut-off of mobile phone service. Students here live by their mobile phones, exchanging oral and text messages constantly, so the disruption of service for most of yesterday afternoon and evening caused some mild panic for some. The way the students are supporting each other has been quite striking. Several contacted us to ask if we were OK. Please remember China and the many who are suffering in your prayers.”

View Larger Map - Northwest of Nanchong, the town of Mianyang was particularly hard hit.

Sidebar: Earthquake has widespread effects

On Monday, May 12 at 2:28 pm local time, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck Wenchuan county in central China affecting the city of Chengdu, the capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province. Chengdu is situated approximately 90 km southeast of the epicentre. It has a population of 2 million, with another 9 million in the surrounding urban area.

At least 12,000 people are estimated to have died but some say the death toll could rise to as many as 50,000.

Tremors from the quake were felt as far away from the epicentre as Beijing and Shanghai, where buildings were reported to have swayed under the effects.

For more information about assisting in the physical relief effort in central China, refer to Mennonite Church Canada’s relief and material aid partner, Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCC Canada) website at MCC is also a partner ministry with MPC in China.

To assist with long term spiritual care and compassion ministry in the affected areas, donate online to Mennonite Church Canada Witness. These funds will be collaboratively deployed in consultation with our partner, Mennonite Partners in China.

To learn more about efforts to provide basic needs for tens of thousands of people affected by Cyclone Nargis in the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (Burma), see