It was purely by chance that a team of veteran NPR journalists was working in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, on May 12  when the destructive force of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake, its epicenter just 50 miles away, killed some 70,000 people and left millions homeless.
“You never want to feel you’re lucky to be somewhere when a huge disaster strikes,” said Andrea Hsu, the All Things Considered producer who managed advance logistics for ATC’s first weeklong broadcast from a foreign country. Hsu was one of four NPR journalists in Chengdu when the earthquake struck, turning the tiny news operation she had set up in a Sheraton hotel into the only Western broadcast news source for coverage of the disaster.
After a scouting trip in February, ATC chose Chengdu as its home base for a week of special broadcasts, May 19-23, intending to introduce listeners to a region of China rarely covered in Western media. The city was more ethnically diverse than most and boasted an interesting cultural history, and local officials seemed open-minded about granting access to NPR’s journalists, Hsu recalled. Plus, the local food was really good.
A month later, such considerations seem almost trivial. NPR’s coverage of the May 12 earthquake gave listeners emotionally wrenching firsthand accounts of the devastation and human grief wrought by the disaster.
In the 24/7 global news cycle, when audiences can find coverage from hundreds of news organizations around the world, ATC’s anchors were called on to fill roles not unlike that of Edward R. Murrow, reporting from London during the Blitz of World War II.
She tried not to assume the worst
The quake, first reported to U.S. listeners during NPR’s 3 a.m. May 12 newscast, struck while ATC co-host Melissa Block and Hsu were in a seminary interviewing a pastor for a piece on religious life in modern China. They were checking sound levels when the glass in the window frames started rattling.
Their recording of the quake, later streamed in its entirety on NPR.org, captured what Block later described as a surreal moment: a loud rumbling, a tense pause and Block wondering aloud, “What’s going on? The whole building is shaking.” The segment left an indelible impression of sudden disruption and Block’s dawning recognition.
“Oh, my goodness! We’re in the middle of an earthquake,” she said.
“At first I thought it was a big truck going by,” Block said in an interview with Current. “Your mind doesn’t want to go to worst-case scenario — I remember that from 9/11.”
The pastor’s assistant stood up with a startled look on his face and ran from the room, and the pastor ran after him, Hsu recalled. “They didn’t say anything, which was odd. A split second after, I realized it was a quake.” Hsu and Block quickly left the building, rolling tape as Block described what she saw.
“The top of the church is shaking. . . . The ground is undulating under my feet,” Block says, her voice rising to a slightly higher pitch than usual.
“I was in shock, but I knew that I needed to capture it on tape,” Block recalled. “It was a natural impulse, since we were rolling, to describe what I was hearing and seeing and feeling. It lasted a long time.”
“You okay?” Block asks Hsu on the raw audio. Then Block resumes narrating: “People are huddled here together on the street, the ground is still waving. The shaking seems to be slowing down, there are vibrations under our feet.”
Hsu felt “stunned and actually quite scared,” she recalled nearly a month later. “Melissa and I were standing quite close together because we had the mikes going. I thought, ‘Wow — she’s narrating this.’”
The quake lasted about three minutes, without apparent damage to the seminary building, so Block and Hsu said goodbye to the pastor, gathered their gear and began walking back to their hotel. As soon as they got a cell phone line, they phoned the story to NPR’s newscast unit. Later they found Robert Siegel, ATC co-host — who fled down 27 flights of hotel stairs during the quake — producer Art Silverman and translator Xiaoyu Xie in a stadium near the hotel.
“We all knew what we needed to do,” said Chris Turpin, ATC e.p. “We had to try to get out and record and find out what had happened and how many people were likely to be affected.”
Turpin was in the Beijing airport when Hsu called to tell him of the disaster. “I’d thought she was pulling my leg,” Turpin recalled. “Then I realized how shaken she was.”
Turpin was stuck in the airport for 24 hours with other members of the ATC team, awaiting the next flight to Chengdu. “Once the quake hit, there were no planes,” he said. Flight cancellations delayed reporters from other Western news organizations from getting to the quake zone, he said. “That was part of the reason we had the place to ourselves for a while.”
Other news outlets, such as CNN and ABC, aired Block’s narration of the earthquake and subsequent reporting. Siegel described his experiences in interviews with NBC and PBS. Photographs by Hsu provided visuals for the TV reports. A May 22 Washington Post story on NPR’s China coverage began: “For more than a week, some of the most compelling news coverage on TV has been radio news coverage.”
“We already had drivers and cars lined up, and as soon as they were able to get cars, they headed north,” Turpin recalled. “They had advice on where to go — but they could have gone anywhere.”
“Every morning, we just decided where to go,” Hsu said. “Everywhere you went, there was a story to be told.” She had a similar experience covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005: “Every person you met had a horribly tragic story to tell.”
Head toward the devastation
On the first reporting expedition, the evening after the quake, two reporting teams—Siegel with Silverman and Xiaoyu, Block with Hsu — traveled separately to Dujiangyan, a town northwest of Chengdu.
Dujiangyan “was the closest place with damage that we had heard about,” Hsu said. “We didn’t know that the roads had been blocked.”
Siegel’s team visited a Red Cross outpost and a hospital where an entire wing had collapsed, according to Chengdu Diary, the NPR.org blog that all members of the reporting team contributed to during the trip. Block and Hsu went to Juyuan Middle School, outside of town, where Chinese media had reported on rescue efforts.
Hsu, who speaks Mandarin Chinese but doesn’t understand the Sichuan dialect very well, asked the driver to accompany them and help translate.
“It was just a nightmarish scene,” Block said. Heavy equipment had been brought in and floodlights set up. Hundreds of parents had gathered by the school wreckage, and they were angry that the response had taken so long, she said. Block and Hsu began interviewing them.
“Before we could register what was happening, a police officer was headed our way, and we were surrounded very quickly,” Block said.
The officer questioned Hsu, who said the Sichuan Foreign Affairs office had granted permission for them to report there. “There was a pause, and then he said, ‘Come with us,’” Hsu said.
“They were pulling Andrea and me apart,” Block said. “I can’t speak Chinese and was holding on to her, because I didn’t want to get separated.” They couldn’t see their driver.
“A crowd formed around us and was trying to grab the equipment,” Hsu said. “It was kind of scary. We were getting jostled.” She estimated 30 bystanders were in the crowd.
“It got ugly,” Block said. “I had never been treated that way when I was reporting before. I couldn’t understand what they were saying.” Hsu somehow surreptitiously slipped the disc from her recorder and a photo card to Block.
“The police pulled us aside and started marching us to a building,” Block recalled. “I said to Andrea, ‘I’m not going into that building.’”
Hsu told the officials: “There’s been a misunderstanding — we just wanted to find out what was going on. You’ve got other things to do in this time of crisis. We’ll just leave.”
They were escorted off the school grounds but couldn’t find their driver. They packed up their equipment, put it away and returned to the school.
Eventually they found the driver and decided to stay and observe the recovery of bodies from the rubble. “I was not able to take notes because I didn’t want to call attention to fact that I was reporting,” Block said. “I was able to see how many bodies were recovered . . . . We realized there were bodies everywhere in different staging areas.”
Parents mourning their lost children were setting up altars in tents and lighting incense and candles or firecrackers. Rescuers brought bodies out of collapsed buildings and dropped them unceremoniously on the ground. Parents rushed to identify the children.
They’d turn around quickly if it wasn’t their child or fall to the ground in grief. “There was one woman lying on her back, kicking her feet in the air, and wails of grief that I’ll just never forget,” Block said. “It was a wrenching scene, and it went on and on.”
Three days later, she and Hsu went back to the school. “It was such an incredibly powerful place, I wanted to see what had happened,” Block said. The recovery operation had ended, but they saw one woman wandering around “looking lost,” Block said. “Someone told us her child was still missing.”
Block heard complaints from angry parents about shoddy school construction — complaints that would later multiply to the point that the government clamped down on parents who were mobilizing to take action and on the news coverage of their movement.
She also met and interviewed two boys who had survived the school’s collapse. One of them told her: “I don’t dare go indoors. If I do, I am haunted by fear.”
Officials generally cooperative
The confrontation with police and bystanders at Juyuan Middle School turned out to be an isolated event. The ATC crew didn’t encounter such hostility again.
“There were no more obstacles than if you’d been doing a story in Kansas,” Turpin said. “We had a lot of cooperation from local officials who were talking to us on the record without getting approval or asking us to clear our questions.” Local officials “even helped us to get to places that were difficult to get to,” he said. They helped NPR correspondent Louisa Lim gain clearance to visit the Zipingpu Dam, for instance, and report on whether it had been damaged by the quake.
On May 14, a young Chinese couple invited Hsu and Block to join them during a recovery operation at their collapsed apartment building, where they hoped their toddler son and his grandparents would be found alive under the rubble. The desperate parents, Wang Wei and Fu Guanyu, clung to excavation machinery that was blocking a road in Dujiangyan. Hsu got out of the car and spoke with them, she recalled. “They spoke very quickly and then said, ‘Come with us.’”
During the daylong recovery work, “they seemed very willing to have us there,” Hsu said. At one point, police and military officials arrived on the scene and advised the couple, “Don’t trust the foreign media,” Hsu said. Translator Philip He defused the tension.
“I was amazed that the officials didn’t ask us to leave,” Hsu said. “The family could have asked us to leave at any time.”
But they didn’t.
Throughout the day, Hsu, Block and the translator recorded key moments in the long recovery effort.
When the couple cried after receiving news that their family members had been found and they were all dead, Block didn’t try to hide the raw emotion of the moment. “You can hear it in my voice that I was broken up,” she said.
As the grievous experience unfolded, Hsu told Block she thought it would be too long and emotionally wrenching to present to U.S. listeners, Block recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t think we can judge that from here.’” She left cutting decisions to her editors in Washington.
“They ultimately decided to run the whole thing,” Block said.
Reports that ATC had been preparing pre-quake, such as one contrasting the region’s ancient irrigation system with its controversial modern hydropower dams, had to be re-reported. Block revisited Chengdu’s panda breeding center, updating what was to be a profile of Director Zhang Zhihe with material on how he had assisted a badly damaged panda center in Wolong, near the quake's epicenter.
“After the earthquake, the stories became more interesting,” Block said. “They all had to be completely ripped apart and rewritten, but they became much more topical.” But her stories on Sichuan cuisine, including a piece in which she learns the secrets of cooking authentic Kung Pao chicken, will wait for another day.
The ATC team has returned home, back to their regular lives, but the Chinese people they met are still in their minds. Block thinks “all the time” about the couple who lost their toddler and their parents.
Hsu can’t shake the memory of arriving at the middle school where the parents waited for word about their kids, she said. “It was probably the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.”
Turpin recalled a visit to the village of Red Flag, which Siegel visited twice to report on its recovery. When NPR’s team arrived for the second time, a village woman held an umbrella over Turpin’s head, shielding him from the blistering sun.
“We were incredibly moved by the openness and generosity of the people we met during the time that we there,” Turpin said. “It was so remarkable that when everyone had every right to not be thinking about anyone else’s welfare, they were so solicitous of visitors who had come to ask them about their tragedy.”