On April 14th at 7:49am, the town of Jyekundo in the traditional Tibetan region of Kham, was struck by a devastating 6.9 magnitude earthquake (China measured it at 7.1). My family and I were in our 3rd floor apartment building when the earthquake hit. There was a smaller earthquake (around 4.7) that occurred around 4am and neither my wife or I could get back to sleep. When the big quake hit, my wife was using her computer while our younger son Norbu (18 months old) was playing in the living room. Tsering, our older son who is 3 years old, was still asleep in the back bedroom of the 3 bedroom apartment we were living in. The apartment we were in was located on the south part of Jyekundo, a couple hundred meters south of the Xining bus station.
Norbu flew across the room when the quake hit. My wife was also violently thrown to the ground. Everything in our apartment began to be tossed around, breaking when it hit the walls or floor. I ran to the back bedroom and grabbed Tsering and grabbed him as my wife grabbed Norbu off the floor. Together, we ran to the door. I paused long enough to grab my shoes, coat and a bit of money. I opened the door and one of our Tibetan neighbors assisted us in carrying Tsering down the 3 flights of stairs to the ground floor. All of us were in just our pajamas. I was the only one of my family who managed to get shoes.
Immediately after the earthquake, the air was filled with dust and it was difficult to see what damage had occurred. Once the dust began to settle, we were able to see that this was a major earthquake that caused extensive damage. We began to hear people screaming for help, severely injured people crawling to the road and people weeping for loved ones who had died. An elementary school is behind our complex and dozens of students could be heard crying our for their parents. Many parents rushed to the school and were relieved to find that the school remained intact. The parents of the children were weeping with joy to find that none of the students were severely injured (the students were still playing outside when the quake happened and the school consisted of several 1 story buildings rather than 4 or 5 story concrete buildings).
Our complex had many broken windows and some major cracks, but remained standing. Our new 4WD vehicle didn’t suffer any problems so I drove it out of the complex, expecting it to be our “home” for an indefinite amount of time. With nowhere to go, we just sat in it on the street and watched the chaos unfold. It was still quite cold out, around 29F / -2C. Fortunately, I had just filled up with gas the night before so we were able to turn the heat on and have at least some shelter from the cold and the strong wind that was blowing outside.
I found a safe place to park in front of the King Gesar Square in downtown Jyekundo. There were no high buildings there and a couple thousand people had already gathered there (most of whom were wearing only their pajamas and without shoes). A friend of ours found us and I decided to go back to our apartment and try and get some necessities as we had no food, water or adequate clothing for cold weather. My friend stayed with my family. I walked roughly a kilometer (3/4 of a mile) back to our complex. Along the way, I passed a makeshift hospital. A van pulled up and two guys were carrying a man to see one of the handful of nurses who was helping the injured. I decided to lend a hand. When I began to help carry the man, I realized that he was already dead. There were close to 75 people in the makeshift hospital, but half of them were already dead. After dropping him off at the makeshift hospital, which was turning into a makeshift morgue, I made it to our apartment.
I looked at the structure of the apartment complex before running up the 3 flights of stairs. The apartment still looked relatively safe and I saw two of our Tibetan neighbors also going in another doorway of the complex. I ran up the 3 flights of stairs as quickly as possible and grabbed a suitcase. I filled it up with some clothes for all of us, shoes, water, small food items and a couple of small blankets for me boys. Our apartment was in total disarray. Their was broken glass everywhere, water pouring out of broken pipes and our simple wood furniture completely destroyed.
After gathering some items from our apartment, we returned to the Gesar Square area. The police then had everyone move to the horse festival grasslands which are located on the far west part of town, about 4kms from the city center. The grasslands were a grim site with many people severely injured and several people who were already dead. I saw a family clutching their 13 or 14 year old son who had died. My wife saw two young girls with a blanket covering their bodies. Just their bare feet were sticking out while their family was wailing for their loss. I tried to take my 3 year old son for a walk in order to get him out of the car, but the massive destruction, suffering and death around us was too much. After less than 5 minutes, we returned to our vehicle.
We were waiting to hear a report on how the road was leading out of Jyekundo to the provincial capital of Xining was. This high elevation route covers over 800kms/500 miles and crosses numerous bridges and high mountain passes. We wanted to be sure that this route was clear so that we wouldn't get stuck on our way to the city. We asked several police and military officials, but none of them could give us an answer. So we decided to go back to the grasslands area with the other survivors.
By this time, more people had moved to the grasslands. Most of them had very few possessions. Many of them still only had their sleep wear on. Some families managed to get a few blankets, but very few had tents to protect themselves from the cold air and strong wind. The wind was blowing quite hard and the air was filled with dirt and sand. Nobody said much. An older Tibetan family asked us to sit with them. They asked us which part of the town we were living in and I asked the same. They said they lost everything. Their house, like almost everyone else, had been completely destroyed. They escaped with little more than the cloths on their backs.
Starting from right after the earthquake, we began trying to contact our many Tibetan friends who live in Jyekundo. There was still cell service, but the phone lines were clogged from all the phone calls that where coming in and out of the town. It was impossible for us to get a call out. We were very worried for our many friends. A phone call finally came through from the US consular in Beijing. He called to say that he knew of our situation and would do anything needed to get us out, though he said it would most likely take at least 24 to 36 hours because of the extreme remote location of Yushu Prefecture. It was nice to know that the US government knew of our situation and wanted to help us.
The horse festival grasslands were a depressing site. With very few doctors and only a handful of nurses, there was little anyone could do for the severely injured. We decided to try and go back to our apartment and salvage a few more items. We drove through town and it looked like a war zone. It looked like the whole town had been hit by a bomb. On the north and west end of town, the Tibetans all live in poorly built mud-brick homes. There are several thousand of these kind of homes and well over 90% of them were leveled. They were completely gone. All that remained was a twisted pile of dirt, glass and wood logs. The houses, along with most of the town, were destroyed. Our hearts were broken for our friends who lived in this area.
Many monks from local monasteries came into town to assist in the relief effort. In the main intersection in Jyekundo had a large 4 story building that collapsed. Dozens of monks could be found digging through the rubble. Unfortunately, Trangu Monastery to the south of Jyekundo was completely destroyed. Initial reports are than only 7 or 8 monks out of nearly 100 survived. Many of the monks at Trangu were just children.
We finally heard a report that the road to Xining was open so we decided to try it. We got 3 separate reports that the road was good so we felt confident that we would be okay. It was tough to leave the earthquake zone, but with 2 small children (ages 18 months and 3 years) I would be of little help to the relief work. My priority was to take care of my family and get them out of harm's way. It was very difficult to leave behind our friends who we knew were suffering and dying. If I were just by myself, I would have stayed, but I had to get my family out of there.
We left Jyekundo about 7 hours after the quake happened. It was an extremely traumatic experience for all of us. Though we were extremely sad for our friends and for our Tibetan hometown, we were also very thankful that we were okay. We drove 6 hours to the first town that had a decent hotel. We stayed the night in Mado county in Golog prefecture. We had a horrible night sleep and our older son, Tsering, woke up with horrible nightmares every hour.
The next morning we woke up early and drove the remaining 8 hours to Xining, where we also rent an apartment. Along the way to Xining, we passed many hundreds of aid trucks filled with tents, cold weather clothes, food, water, rescue teams, doctors and nurses. They lined the highway almost all the 8 hours that we drove. We were still extremely sad for our friend and for our Tibetan hometown, but were thankful that aid was on its way.
When we arrived home, we were met by a group of our Tibetan friends and friends from the expat community. We were told that our good friend "Buck" had died in the earthquake along with his father. We were extremely brokenhearted to hear this news. We also heard that most of our friends from Yushu who live in Xining lost at least 1 loved one. One of my wife's good friends lost no less than 6 loved ones. We also heard some good news. A longtime friend of ours from Jyekundo who lives in Xining told us that after 12 hours of being trapped in rubble, her brother was freed with relatively few injuries.
I am now working closely with the Yushu Earthquake Relief and will most likely be going back to Jyekundo early next week to deliver medical supplies and a team of foreign doctors and nurses. I encourage everyone who can to make a contribution to the Yushu Earthquake Relief fund. The 100,000 or so people that live in Jyekundo, most of which are Tibetans, need our help. They lost EVERYTHING. Jyekundo as it used to be, does NOT exist. It is completely destroyed. This area is off-limits except to people who have written permission from the Foreign Affairs Bureau. All public flights and buses are canceled as the only transportation allowed in is for aid relief.
I will post more on this tragedy in the coming days and weeks.