How I survived earthquake in China

By Edmund Smith-Asante

Destruction left by the earthquake. PICTURE BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE.jpg
Destruction left in the wake of the earthquake. PICTURE BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE

It began as a very faint sound, as that of a passing big vehicle, but the sound grew louder and clearer. Before I could fathom what was happening, the ground on which I stood started shaking and grew in intensity as the seconds ticked.

There was no time to react and I had to hold on to a metal railing with all my might so as not to lose balance. I heard shouts and screams of terror as I watched huge buildings tumble and crumble and choking dust fill the horror-filled air.

Huge gapes also appeared before me and swallowed whole or in part some buildings and huge trees and with it some people – the shrieks that I heard still haunt me.

It was then that it hit me with a great thud that I was experiencing an earthquake. But I was helpless and only hoped and prayed that it would pass quickly and leave me alive.

After what looked like eternity, the violent shaking and the opening up of the bowels of the earth stopped but there were occasional shifts as displaced structures readjusted to find their balance.

I survived
The fact that I could take in all that was happening around me meant I had survived a very devastating earthquake to tell the story.

Thousands of others like me did not live through the horrible experience and whole families were wiped out.

I did not survive the experience because I was a super being or because I was better than those who died.

My experience of the earthquake at the Yingxiu Town in the Wenchuan County of the Sichuan Province in China was a ‘make believe’ one but it felt so real.

The experience
Visiting African journalists to a museum, opened in memory of the victims of the worst earthquake disaster to hit China in 2008, were given a feel of how it must have felt for those who experienced it when it struck without warning and claimed over 80,000 lives.

The journalists were ushered into a room with a ring-like elevation and asked to hold on firmly to the railings but they did not know what to expect until the platform started vibrating, then shaking vigorously, as projectors overhead began showing footages of the disastrous earthquake as it hit the country nine years ago.

Fear-gripped people ran for their lives amid eerie screams as whole buildings went tumbling down and the surreal surround sound of the mini theatre made the simulated earthquake experience feel real and scary.

It was no wonder, therefore, that after that experience and a tour of the museum, which displays several pictures of the quake and the heroic national and international support from countries such as Cuba and Russia, the previously bubbly journalists became subdued.

Also on display at the museum were some items recovered after the disaster and signed memorabilia of journalists, doctors and health staff, soldiers and relief workers who were on hand to assist the country in their time of difficulty. In the museum, not only the dead are remembered but also those who offered assistance after the disaster.

At the epicentre of the earthquake in Yingxiu, one of several schools which were razed down and claimed over 5,000 lives of pupils and students has also been maintained as a memorial site close to the museum.

The site still shows the cracked and heavily tilted buildings on the compound. Visitors are able to lay some flowers in memory of those who lost their lives who have their cemetery close to the museum.

The quake (
The Sichuan or Wenchuan earthquake occurred on May 12, 2008 at 14:28 local time (06:28 GMT) measured 8.0 on the Richter scale and lasted close to two minutes but the effects were immense.

Apart from the approximately 87, 150 people who lost their lives, 4.8 million were rendered homeless.

The nightmarish quake struck in the afternoon during school and working hours when most people were away from home and stretched to about 240km away and 19km under the earth. Tremors were, however, felt as far as 1,700km away in Shanghai.

In terms of economic losses, the Sichuan quake was considered as the costliest at US$191,913 million until it was bypassed by the Tohoku, Japan earthquake of 2011, which cost US$243,943 million.

It is also estimated that about 1.5 million houses were destroyed, and more than six million houses damaged as a result of the quake.

After the quake, a scientific appraisal was done and the Yingxiu Town was reconstructed on its original site with assistance from the Dongguan City in the Guangdong Province.

This was done with an investment of RMB1.353 billion in 55 aided projects divided into 19 “financial subsidy” and 36 “turnkey” projects.

Together, they cover resettlement housing of four villages and one community, health centre, municipal roads, bridges, water works, markets, monuments and other construction works.

However, the structures were scientifically put up. For instance, all houses and infrastructure of Yingxiu were shifted 200 and 300 metres separately away from the fault zone.

Also, the houses were put up with steel frames, wooden and light steel structures and designed to withstand an eight or nine magnitude earthquake that employs new concepts such as anti-skid slot, vibration isolation cushion, damper and energy dissipation bracing, among other designs.

Lessons for Ghana   
Like China, Ghana has a history of earthquakes and tremors with the likelihood of future occurrences.

According to, although Ghana’s severest earthquake yet was experienced 78 years ago on June 22, 1939 and had a magnitude of 6.4 on the Richter scale, there have been series of earthquakes (some refer to them as tremors) in more recent times.

The fast sprawling towns of Kasoa in the Central Region and Gbawe in the Greater Accra Region have shared the most spoils in occurrence.

The most recent with a 5.9 magnitude and a 33 km depth occurred at 3pm on September 26, 2007, 10 years ago, 385.2 km from Takoradi, while 20 years ago at 3:16pm on March 6, 1997, another one measuring 4.4 in magnitude and with a depth of 10km occurred 6.2 km from Gbawe.

Gbawe was again in the news 27 years ago with two earthquake experiences. The first measuring 3.1 in magnitude and 10 km in depth at 11:43 am on April 14, 1990, occurred 4.2km from the town, while the second, which measured 2.7 in magnitude and also 10km in depth at 1:34am on February 12, 1990 happened 1.2km from the community.

In the last 28, 29 and 30 years, Kasoa has also had its fair share of earthquakes measuring in magnitude 2.0 on March 23, 1989, 3.4 on February 27, 1988 and 3.1 on December 3, 1987 and 10 km in depth respectively.

Mustn’t we be concerned about this trend, learn from the experiences of China and other countries such as Haiti and Japan which have suffered immeasurable losses through earthquakes and put in the necessary measures to cushion the effects of a possible occurrence in the near future?

The danger that this natural disaster portends for this country seems to have been conveniently shelved as if it is never going to happen and places such as  McCarthy Hill in Accra, which have been identified as earthquake-prone, have rather become the site of plush neighbourhoods.

Building regulations are also being flouted with impunity not to talk about putting up structures that will withstand any quaking of the earth. Who checks these things?


  • Other areas affected by the earthquake were; Wenchuan County, Lushan County, Dujiangyan city, Shifang City, Beichuan town, Mianyang and Chengdu about 80 kilometres away from Yingxiu.
  • Twenty-two people out of the then Accra population of 77,000 died as a result of the 1939 earthquake. Two other major earthquakes were experienced in 1862 and 1906.

Writer’s email:

This story was first published by the Daily Graphic (How I survived earthquake in China) on June 12, 2017


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