Under what was a home, a missing wife

Times Staff Writer

At first, Tan Keren tried using his bare hands to tear away at slabs of concrete and giant beams to save the most important person in his life: his wife, business partner and best friend.

Family members tried to help. They called her name, calculated where they should look if she had been watching television at 2:28 p.m. Monday, where she might be if she had fled down the stairs when the earth began to shake.

But the job was too big, the pile of rubble that once was a home too daunting. When the work exhausted him, Tan appealed to overtaxed rescue workers to bring in heavy equipment.

On Tuesday, a crane arrived. But it wasn't strong enough. On Wednesday, it was a backhoe. Same story.

Finally, on Thursday, almost 72 hours after the quake struck, he flagged down a giant power shovel. Operator Tian Heguo began digging into the rubble.

Across shattered Sichuan province, families are fighting thousands of individual battles to find those still missing under collapsed homes, schools and businesses. Officials said Thursday that the death toll from the magnitude 7.9 quake might reach 50,000. At least 28,000 people are listed as missing in the province, and time is running out to save those who might still be trapped.

Tan, 50, hoped that Yao Meiqun, the woman he met 24 years ago in a union arranged by fellow villagers, might be among them.

He had one thing going for him. He lives close enough to a main road to get help. In remote areas, many people still have little but their bare hands to work with.

In the blazing sun Thursday, he watched from the top of a rubble heap as the power shovel hacked and tugged at remnants of his living room.

Relatives talked about a special relationship. From the start, they said, Tan and Yao were well-matched. He was shy, but had integrity. And he had ambitions to start a business.

The two had a son together, and 10 years ago they finally started the business they wanted, buying minerals in bulk and grinding them for sale to companies. But business had been tough despite all their hard work, requiring Tan to frequently be away from home.

Yao raised the boy with the same quiet competence she brought to everything, relatives said. She was an anchor for the family, and it showed in her son, who graduated from law school and is building a career. The young man still shared almost everything about his life with his mother, asked her advice and valued her judgment, they said.

Tan had been on another business trip when the quake hit. He had planned to return the day before, but he ran out of gas. Otherwise, he probably would have been buried with his wife.

By Thursday afternoon, 15 emergency workers in orange suits were finally making some progress at his home, lassoing huge chunks of concrete with a steel cable, which the power shovel dragged into a clearing. A crowd gathered to watch.

Very few houses in the area still were standing. Nearby, bits of wreckage from other homes suggested different stories. An unhinged door still had four dirty rags hung on a wire. A neighbor's bedroom wall had been ripped off, revealing a bassinet, an ornate double bed and white teddy bear. A diploma wedged between bricks. A box of family records.

Finally, after four hours of digging, a cry went up.

Yao had been found. Like archaeologists, rescue workers scraped the dirt and dust away.

When Tan realized she was dead, a wail escaped from deep within his body. Almost immediately, other family members retrieved several shrouds that had been kept hidden under a nearby tree.

In death, Yao's back was bent as if to protect herself from the weight of the broken beams. Her legs were folded and part of her body was jammed behind a last lingering piece of concrete that seemed reluctant to let go.

Rescue workers quickly covered her body to preserve her dignity. Cheap blue slippers fell off her feet as they laid her down on the roadside. The family lighted joss sticks, paper money and firecrackers to speed her way to the afterlife.

Two relatives supported Tan, now so weak with grief that his legs could barely hold him up. Eager to take a last look at his wife, he struggled free and lifted the shroud. As family members repositioned the body, Yao's left hand slipped out of the shroud, as though giving a final wave.

The crowd quickly melted away. Rescue workers headed off to their next job. And the giant digger belched down the road to another tragedy, another buried story.



Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World