'With my two arms I carried out at least 20 children'

Times Staff Writer

Peng Hogan had just sat down for lunch when the earth began to shake. After pushing a slow-moving friend out the door to safety, he rushed to a nearby elementary school that had collapsed in this week's massive earthquake.

"With my two arms I carried out at least 20 children," Peng recalled Thursday at a makeshift shelter here. "They were fourth- and fifth-graders, kindergartners. Maybe 13 were alive."

"I kept yelling out, 'Is there anyone alive?' " Peng said, displaying the cuts on his arms and legs from hours of clawing through concrete and other rubble with his bare hands.

In the instant that wiped out entire communities in central China on Monday, something besides body counts and refugees arose.

Heroes. Ordinary people performing what to them were tiny gestures but ones that made the difference between life and death.

"I'm not a hero, I just did what I needed to do," said Peng, 33, an unmarried telephone line repairman. He later walked more than three hours with his parents from the mountainous small town of Hongbai near the epicenter of the magnitude 7.9 earthquake.

Hongbai was cut off from the outside world as the roads were erased by landslides, preventing rescue workers from getting in. Until help arrived, the people kicked into search and rescue mode and helped save relatives and neighbors.

Wang Zhaorong was just returning from her lunch break when the factory where she worked started to shake. Knowing a co-worker was still inside a dormitory taking a nap, she banged on the door until her colleague awoke, and the two fled together. In the scramble, Wang fell and broke her leg.

Xie Peng, 13, escaped from a middle school that pancaked in the quake. He was lucky, he said; because he is short , he sat in the front row of a crowded classroom of 47. "There were two doors, but the one in the back was locked," he said. "We could only get out from the front."

After gaining safety, Peng immediately began trying to help reach his buried classmates.

"I heard one yell out, 'Save me!' " he said. "I looked closely and saw his hand. I went to get some adults and together we cleared away the debris and pulled him to safety."

Zhao Zhonghua, a cook in the cafeteria of a cement factory, scurried out before the building crumbled. The 37-year-old didn't even have time to check in on his family before assisting the wife of a fellow cook searching for her mother, who also worked in the kitchen, and her husband.

"For five hours I dug through the rubble," said Zhao, who also had cuts on his hands and legs from the rescue effort. "He was a co-worker and a friend. His wife was crying for help and she had no one left. I had to do something."

Before nightfall they pulled out the mother, who was alive. The husband, however, did not make it.



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