By Damon Mcmahon
The rumble rose up fast, violently shaking our Chengdu hotel room to its core. I heard the walls begin to crack as plaster broke from the ceiling.
I looked up at the window and remembered we were 32 floors above ground.
For a moment we sat in silence, unable to move. I grabbed my father's shirtsleeve and pulled him to the floor. We both crawled under the table and curled into fetal position.
Vibrations became jolts, and then jolts became an angry shuddering, which shook the floor beneath our bodies. My father began to count out the seconds on his watch, trying to slow the tremors with some kind of logic.
"It won't be more than 30 seconds, they never are," he said. Forty-five seconds passed, then a minute. Suddenly the floor supports felt like they had dropped out from beneath us, and the building shook with a mighty thrust.
My father gave up counting as he began to feel sick. I grabbed hold of his arm and tried to breathe. There is a point where logic fades and panic begins. Mine was after one minute of attempted patience, when I realized we had not stopped shaking. It was only getting stronger.
I could feel the delicate frame of the building bending under the pressure.
I tried not to move, as though the slightest nervous twitch would topple the building as it leaned and swayed. The only sound I registered was the unnatural, high-pitched creaking of the walls and ceiling. I felt as though I would drop through the floor any moment.
Those second and third minutes were a blur, and at 2:31 pm, it suddenly stopped.
That afternoon, along with hundreds of fellow evacuees, we were escorted to the Chengdu Sports Center for shelter. None of us had any idea that thousands had already died, or were struggling to stay alive, some 100 km away, some just at the edge of town.
That night, the stadium was lit by floodlights and scattered stars. Parents and children lined the field with tents and makeshift huts, too scared to sleep at home for fear of aftershocks.
I couldn't sleep, and with nowhere to go, I laid out on the grass among people. Despite the conditions, there was no panic or discord. Strangers slept together under the stars, some under shelter, some with no more than newspapers and cardboard as beds.
A young girl had taken it upon herself to collect garbage that littered the ground. I watched her slowly make the rounds, weaving ever so carefully, in and out of tents and people fast asleep. She made sure not to wake them as she bent down quietly to do her small part in the aftermath of May 12.
I was one of the lucky ones. I had a hotel room intact, clean bed sheets and food to eat. I watched that night as people who had lost all overcame their hardships by sharing food and shelter where they could, close to 1,000 strangers lying together out in the rain. Since that night, I have continuously seen the power of kindness and community, as China heals with dignity in the face of utter tragedy.
(China Daily May 26, 2008)