On the afternoon of May 12, I was walking to my home in the town of Wenjiang, in Sichuan Province, China, when the ground began to shake. I didn’t realize it was an earthquake until I saw all the buildings around me vibrating.

After the tremors subsided, security guards began patrolling the neighborhood, urging people to leave their homes and seek shelter in the parks. I could see giant cracks in many buildings. All the main thoroughfares had been blocked and policemen were busy directing traffic and pedestrians. Inside Wenjiang Park, people set up tents or put down sheets on the lawn. Garbage piled up.

Clouds gathered and the wind started to blow. There were long lines in front of all the grocery stores and restaurants. I found a small noodle shop and waited for ten minutes. The line didn’t move. I yelled at the top of my voice. Nobody paid any attention. People buried their faces in their bowls, eating and eating. I snatched a couple of cakes at a bakery, then I wandered through the streets. 

At eleven P.M. a large crowd of people gathered around a television set on the street. The government announced an initial death toll of eight thousand. A friend called from Dujiangyan, one of the most damaged cities in Sichuan Province. He screamed into the phone: The entrance to Erwang Temple has collapsed. Rubble is everywhere. Dead bodies are everywhere. As he was yelling, our call cut off. 

I felt guilty that I had survived. On television I watched babies and students being pulled out of the debris. I wished I could be there helping, or at least recording their despair. I thought of the professional mourner I’d interviewed ten years ago. He spent his whole life crying and playing the suona at other people’s funerals. What would happen to him now? 

Four days later, a friend and I decided to visit Dujiangyan. I wanted to interview survivors. Since Premier Wen Jiabao was in the city helping to organize the rescue work, the local government had set up several checkpoints along the road. Only rescue workers and government-sanctioned journalists were allowed to enter. 

After a couple of phone calls, my friend, who is well connected, managed to gain us access. Crumbled houses and makeshift tents were everywhere we looked. I met a forty-year-old man named Yang Wenchang, who had bruises all over his body, and his wife, Zhou Zehua. Yang had just returned the day before from Wenchuan County, the epicenter of the magnitude-eight earthquake.