A shadow is cast on a hopeful scene

Times Staff Writer

When rescue workers pulled Cao Jianqiang out of the rubble, the first thing he did was cover his eyes against the sun, which he hadn't seen in 75 hours. Then, overjoyed that his life had been spared, he gave a big wave to cheering bystanders.

That joy has been tempered by news that after Cao survived three days without food or water while trapped in the wreckage of Dongqi High School, his foot will probably have to be amputated.

A week after the massive earthquake slammed Sichuan province, a few people are still being rescued. The sheer will of people like Cao, 18, who was pulled from the debris Thursday, has provided a much-needed lift for a wounded nation. But the chance of more such miracles declines every day.

May 12 dawned sunny and temperate, Cao recalls. He breezed through his morning classes in the school built along a tree-lined canal, and enjoyed a lunch of fried rice with friends before heading for his 2 o'clock math class on the fourth floor.

At 2:28, China's worst earthquake in three decades upended his world, the time frozen on the face of the broken town clock. As the shaking intensified, he climbed under his desk on the advice of his math teacher. It would prove a fateful decision.

Within seconds, the ceiling started falling, he said Monday from his hospital bed. Then the desk started sliding across the collapsing floor. He grabbed a leg and held on as the building went into free fall. Within seconds, he was buried alive.

As the dust settled, he heard cries for help, then silence. About 200 of the school's 1,000 students were buried. An estimated 130 are now believed dead.

Slowly Cao took stock. He'd survived. He landed face down, crouching, with his legs pinned under a chunk of concrete.

He soon realized someone was nearby. They introduced themselves in the dark. Gou Ke, also 18, had been in a classroom one floor below. They hadn't met previously, but having someone six feet away was an enormous comfort. Gou also suffered a serious foot injury but would survive, as would two others trapped nearby, one of whom was in Cao's math class.

Gou had a cellphone. He tried to call and send text messages, but the service was down. In a bid to boost morale, he played some downloaded music from his phone into the void.

In the pitch dark, Cao cleared a little more space by moving small pieces of concrete and brick. But they weren't the only things he found. He felt a foot and an arm. He shook them. Not only were they lifeless, they belonged to different bodies.

For the next three days, family members watched cranes and orange-suited emergency workers dig out body after body. They slept in the rubble of their own destroyed house, returning in the morning to scan the corpses for their son, a boy who enjoyed basketball and kung fu movies.

"We felt helpless, desperate, absolutely sure he was dead," said Li Junhui, 32, his aunt.

Back in the darkness, Cao found that he wasn't particularly bothered by sharing the space around him with two corpses -- until they started to decompose. "I'm not particularly brave," he said later from his hospital bed. "I'm pretty ordinary."

He found it hard to gauge the passage of time. Periodically he'd sleep, getting some relief from the claustrophobia and difficulty of his predicament. Upon awaking, however, he'd assume a day had passed when it was probably only a few hours. And his legs were growing increasingly numb.

His companion, Gou, didn't talk much, and at one point became delusional, claiming that he was a colonel in the Chinese military. Cao told him he was talking nonsense, but Gou was so convincing that Cao started to believe him.

To keep himself going, Cao said, he would think about his parents, who spent more than half the family's income of $140 a month on his tuition and expenses. You must survive, he told himself, given how much they have sacrificed to put you through school.

Recounting the story later, he reached over and lovingly touched the hand of his mother, Wang Chaoli, 43. She regards it as a miracle that he made it.

Cao, relatively stocky at 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 145 pounds, says he didn't miss eating too much. But he became unbelievably thirsty. Unable to move his legs, he urinated on himself, he said.

Nearby, Gou drank his own urine by soaking a newspaper and raising it to his lips. "I would've drunk anything," Gou later told the Sichuan Daily website.

On Thursday afternoon, their luck finally turned. After they had heard emergency workers for hours, light appeared from a hole a yard above Cao's head. His throat was too parched to shout, but he saw three rescue workers.

He asked for water. Although it would take a couple of hours more to free him, the workers lowered a tube and he sucked down a container of rehydration solution.

"It was far and away the best-tasting liquid I've ever had in my life," he said.

After an agonizing wait, he was finally freed and waved on his way to a waiting ambulance. Cao's uncle was in the crowd a few hundred feet away, but his eyesight is weak and he couldn't be sure it was his nephew.

During the ambulance ride, Cao asked the medic to dial his father's cellphone number, but there was no answer. His father's battery was dead. Then they tried his home number. Although the house was destroyed and the family was living nearby in a tent by then, the phone had survived. When his mother picked it up and heard his voice, her joy was unbounded.

The following day, doctors sliced parts of his injured leg open to relieve the pressure of swelling.

As he recovered, strangers took a break from their own sorrow to stop by. On Saturday, the family transferred him to another hospital 250 miles away in hopes he could get better care. But an examination revealed that the long period without circulation would almost certainly force amputation of his right foot, and possibly his left foot as well. Doctors are expected to decide as early as today.

For a poor farm family with only one son, this is devastating news, particularly in a country where prestige and earning power still rest with the male line and being disabled carries a huge stigma. A single well-educated male offspring with a good job can raise a family's standing and fortunes. But most universities won't even accept applicants with disabilities.

"In the future, not only won't the young boy support us, but we old men will have to support him," said Cao's uncle, Cao Biyun, 53, crying.

The family has lost everything. The house is buried, furniture destroyed. Cao has not been told about the likely amputation. The family is reeling from the emotional roller coaster of the last few days.

"When we got the good news we were ecstatic," Cao Biyun said. "Now that he may lose his foot, we're very sad. But it's still a blessing that he survived."



Special correspondent Gao Wenhuan contributed to this report.

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