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Quake survivors at 315 Happiness Road

Tang Xiaomin had just left her fourth-floor apartment to buy groceries when the building started crumbling around her.
China Earthquake
Alive and 8 months pregnant, Zhang Xiaoyan, 34, is carried from a partially collapsed building in Dujiangyan on Wednesday. Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tang Xiaomin had just left her fourth-floor apartment to buy groceries when the building started to crumble around her.

An upstairs neighbor was thrown against the kitchen table. She grabbed her purse and rushed out. Another resident, pregnant and resting, didn't have time. She became trapped.

The three occupants of the six-story apartment building at 315 Happiness Road were just some of the residents who managed to survive Monday's massive earthquake, although many of their neighbors did not. They endured moments of terror, shock, relief and now worry as they try to rebuild their lives.

"It's hard to take because we never, ever experienced anything like this before," said the short, slender Tang, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and standing in front of a shelter of plastic sheets, umbrellas and bamboo poles she now calls home.

'Property loss is just huge'
Tang, 40 and unemployed, had moved into the newly built apartment 10 years ago, using compensation awarded when the government demolished her former home as part of China's urban renewal boom. The apartment was home to her and her husband, a construction worker, their 16-year-old son, who was at school when the quake struck, and Tang's 61-year-old mother.

The mother was alone in the apartment when the temblor hit. Hours later, rescuers eased her through a gap in the apartment's facade and down to the street below.

The family of four spent Monday night camped under an umbrella in a chilly drizzle, numb from both the cold and their ordeal — but relieved to be alive and together.

"The property loss is just huge, but the people are safe and that's all that matters," Tang said in her sing-songy Sichuan accent.

Covered in dust
Neighbor Luo Ying was one flight upstairs from Tang, in a fifth-floor apartment, when the building began shaking at 2:27 p.m.

The department store clerk remembers chunks of tile and cement crashing all around her as she scrambled down five flights of stairs with her neighbors.

"I was covered in dust when I got to the bottom. I didn't dare believe it," she said.

Seeking shelter from the rain, Luo and her neighbors scavenged a canopy from an electronics store promotional event and piled old signboards high with salvaged blankets.

By dusk, about five hours after the quake, police and military units arrived, bringing relief, Luo said, "We knew we weren't alone and that someone would help."

Her husband has taken her daughter to the provincial capital of Chengdu while she remains near the apartment building, watching the rescue teams that clear away rubble and look for bodies with backhoes, cranes and hand tools.

Everyone working together
Zhang Xiaoyan is perhaps the most famous resident of 315 Happiness Road. Eight months pregnant, she was lying on a couch in her living room with her mother when the magnitude-7.9 quake collapsed the apartment's walls and trapped them in a space less than two feet high filled with rubble and broken furnishings.

While China and much of the world watched rapt on television Wednesday, Zhang was pulled from the rubble 50 hours later. Firefighters had to work painstakingly slowly for fear of bringing down other slabs of concrete on them.

Because Zhang was still trapped on the second floor, a bulldozer had to raise its scoop 18 feet so rescuers could lay her in it. As they did, one of the workers raised a thumbs-up to the crowd of now-homeless neighbors, who cheered and clapped.

"It is very moving. It's a miracle brought about by us all working together," said Sun Guoli, the fire chief of nearby Chengdu.

Cheers for two survivors
Zhang's mother was pulled out shortly afterward. Both looked shaken but were not seriously injured. They had been given water during the ordeal and rescuers were able to talk to them.

As the ambulance sped off through clogged traffic, rescuers threw their arms in the air and cheered.

"They're doing fine, both her and the child," Tang said of Zhang, who was hospitalized in Chengdu. "It was such a wonderful thing that they were rescued."

Now Tang, Luo and the other displaced residents wait for promised state housing assistance.

They sweep, dust, fluff and fold to try to keep their tent area clean — even as old plastic bottles, instant noodle boxes and empty cigarette packs pile up around them. Just inches in front of them, traffic meanders through town, with cars, motorcycles and trucks all honking and the occasional ambulance wailing its siren.

Tang expressed faith the communist government would care for the many thousands of homeless survivors.

"This is temporary. After the government helps the people in the mountains, they will help us find a solution to our problems," she said.

The apartment building at 315 Happiness Road still stands, although it seems ready to fall at any moment. Jagged, dangerous looking shards of concrete dangled above the sidewalk, which was cordoned off with yellow police tape.

Crews continued delicate rescue work there Thursday, but at a much slower and less- intensive pace. Another four people were said to be inside, possibly alive. One man worked from a cherry picker to cut steel reinforcing bars and release hanging debris.

"Life is so frail," Luo said. Her belongings were still inside her fifth-floor apartment but too dangerous to retrieve.

"We were all so excited about the Beijing Olympic Games" in August, she said, "but now we only feel sadness."