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Cell phone beep marked days for quake victim

As he lay pinned by a concrete slab on his chest, Yuan Jiang heard the stuttering beep of the alarm clock on his cell phone, the only thing helping him keep track of time while trapped in a collapsed office building.
China Earthquake
Yuan Jiang says he spent three days trapped in earthquake rubble talking with coworkers buried in wreckage nearby, and thinking about his wife and daughter. His wife did not survive the quake.Andy Wong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As he lay pinned by a concrete slab on his chest, Yuan Jiang heard the stuttering beep of the alarm clock on his cell phone, the only thing helping him keep track of time while trapped in a collapsed office building.

Once a day, from somewhere in the wreckage, it sounded at 8 a.m., the time he normally woke up, letting him know another day had passed. In between, the 37-year-old marketing executive shouted for help, talked with two co-workers buried elsewhere in the rubble, thought about his wife and daughter — and waited for the alarm.

It rang three times.

"I just waited and waited and waited for somebody to come," said Yuan, who was freed from the wreckage almost 72 hours after the devastating earthquake flattened his hometown of Beichuan.

While the powerful May 12 quake obliterated communities in a swath of China, 6,375 people were pulled alive from the rubble — victories amid a death toll projected to rise past 50,000. State media have cheered the rescues.

Yuan suffered light injuries, fractures to his chest, a torn left ear, a bruised right eye, a chunk of scalp torn away and now bandaged.

His 10-year-old daughter lived, but his wife is buried under their home and presumed dead. "My wife is gone," he said from his hospital bed.

Beichuan is so wrecked that officials are talking about rebuilding on a new site, leaving the mounds of ruins as a monument to the thousands dead and the quake-shattered lives of its remaining 30,000 people. While rescue workers kept up a methodical hunt for survivors in recent days, fewer searched Tuesday, the pace slowing nine days after the quake.

Down the block from the now listing six-story Beichuan Hotel, Yuan was meeting with 20 others at his telecommunications company's sixth floor office on May 12 when the building shook. At least eight of them rushed to a stairwell but made it only one floor down before everything crumbled.

Pinned under debris
A nearby wall splintered, shooting off a chunk of debris wide enough to cover Yuan from his stomach to his neck and pinning him to the floor. He could not move, but was wedged at an angle he could still take shallow, painful breaths in the hot, dusty air. His glasses were smashed, leaving him unable to see much beyond a few feet.

"I shouted until I had no more strength left," Yuan said Tuesday, his voice still hoarse. "I just wanted to escape."

In between his own screams, he heard others and recognized their voices, two co-workers, screaming "Help! Help!" They called to each other, talking about their injuries, and figured out where each was. One was on the floor above Yuan, the other on the floor below.

Then silence took over as the hours dragged on, although he said he couldn't sleep. While he did not know it, Beichuan was cut off.

Yuan tried to think of pleasant things to keep himself calm. "I thought about my wife, my daughter, all the people I love," he said. "I thought of everything that was precious to me."

Then, more than 17 hours in the rubble, Yuan heard his cell phone alarm, although he could not see it. Another day, he said. But it passed in the same dispiriting way as the first, small conversations and much silence. Other feelings intruded. "I didn't feel any hunger, but had a fierce thirst," he said.

A day and another alarm later, rescue crews could be heard nearby, calling the names of Yuan and other colleagues, and sent there, he later learned, by his company. "We were shouting 'Save me' with all our strength," he said. The two co-workers were quickly freed, but the debris around Yuan made him more difficult to reach.

Rescuers careful
Rescuers spent another day digging, carefully maneuvering and lifting concrete and other debris to keep the pile from shifting and crushing Yuan. A third alarm rang. It was now May 15.

Five hours later, he was suddenly lifted up.

Six paramilitary policemen laid him on a stretcher and covered his eyes to protect them from the jolt of daylight. They carried him up a mile and a quarter of winding mountain roads, broken in places by car-sized boulders unleashed by quake-triggered landslides. At a middle school converted into a triage center, he was put on an ambulance and driven to Mianyang City Central Hospital, the best in the area in the closest city.

"I was dizzy and confused," Yuan said. "I was hallucinating."

Looking back over the ordeal from his hospital bed, Yuan said he thought about TV news footage he had seen as a child of modern China's most devastating earthquake — a 1976 quake in the northeastern city of Tangshan near Beijing that killed at least 240,000 people.

"I've always thought what happened in Tangshan was terrible, but I never realized the extent of the horror until I experienced it myself," he said.

In the first two days after he was rescued, all he drank was water, eating a bowl of porridge only after that.

Now he has new gold-rimmed glasses and lies on bed under a tent in front of the Mianyang City Central Hospital, one of the best in the area. His younger sister uses a fan to wave flies away as his mother dozes on the corner of his bed.

"All I want to do now is sit up," Yuan said with a grimace. "It's so hard just lying here all day doing nothing."