Webster U. professor tracks colleagues in China quake | St. Louis Public Radio

Webster U. professor tracks colleagues in China quake

May 14, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The first news of the big quake came to me on my mobile phone. My wife called me, cell-to-cell, and told me: Earthquake! She was evacuating with her Shanghai office mates at Accenture, the U.S. company. They had gone down the stairs, avoiding the elevators, just like 911. Outside, police tried to swish them away, thinking they were some sort of demonstration.

I was with the police and had just met with friends, Glenn Briggs and his wife Jeanne, at their hotel. Both had just flown in from Chengdu after more than 10 weeks there. After leaving Glenn's hotel and crossing Nanjing Road, the heart of Shanghai, I started seeing people outside office buildings and looking up, as if they expected something. I told the driver it must be another bomb scare, and he agreed. When my wife called to tell me about the run down stairs, I started putting the information together: mild earthquake coming from Taiwan or Japan.

By late afternoon I was getting ready for a evening meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce, but I kept watching the news. The quake was large; thousands might be injured. The news reported that at least two schools collapsed, killing nearly a thousand kids in each location. It was at or very close to Chengdu. 

I went to the meeting, but inappropriately tried to use my phone to call Chengdu and send text messages. I could not find anyone. At first I thought too many people were calling in and out. That was likely true, but additionally, China Mobile in the Shanghai Daily said, "more than 4000 base stations were knocked out."

I called our other people in China who work for Webster and asked them to start calling people in Chengdu. Finally, I got the first message at about 6 p.m. It was our project manager in Chengdu, Abby Cheng, who texted me to say: "Hi boss. I just experienced a real earthquake! Thank God, Glenn and Jeanne are in Shanghai, now." It was the message I wanted. She did not say: loss, injury, death, and destruction. Somehow, there was a large earthquake, but Chengdu and my colleagues, students, alums and other escaped injury and property loss.

We kept calling until after 10 p.m. when one of our calls, from my wife, opened a line to Abby Cheng. We were not finding our Chinese university colleagues or our own Webster University professor, Al Cawns. We had been calling his apartment, where the phone would ring, but no one answered.

Abby was out on the street. The stores were closed. Abby, her parents and two children were having snacks for dinner, getting ready to sleep on the street, someplace close to their high rise apartment. And yet, the good news was there: No buildings had toppled, and all structures were intact. Webster University has two apartments close to where we teach in Chengdu, and each apartment is up on the 18th and 21st floors. I don't think I would have slept there that night.

However, our second call to Chengdu, my wife, Wu Yi, scored again, and got Al Cawns on the phone at the apartment, high above most of the rest of Chengdu. He and his wife were together when the swaying started and made their way into the staircase, starting the long climb down. A security guard found them along the way, and for better or worse, put them in the elevator. At least they arrived on the ground floor. One of our Chinese colleagues was out on the street looking for them to take them back to the university to be outside or in a low level structure.

Tuesday morning must have been a mob scene at airport. By that time, everyone knew that thousands had been killed just a few miles away. From Shanghai, we kept trying to pinpoint Al Cawns and his wife. Our Chinese colleague had finally lost battery power and no one was calling us back. We just had to assume that Al was on his way to Beijing with his wife, or we would have had some report. If you see him in St. Louis, tell him to call or email us, again.

By Wednesday morning, 8 a.m., I had a class at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SUFE). China TV news reports and the Shanghai Daily reported that troops were making their way, on foot, into the heart of the quake at place called Yingxiu. Soldiers were everywhere, and the Chinese Premier Wen Jiaoboa was on location at ruined buildings to push soldiers to shove, lift and release the trapped.

At my class, I need to talk about good operations and communications. I told the class, Beijing must have learned a great deal from New Orleans, President George Bush, and the failed efforts of the military in Myanmar just in the past few days. Wen Jiaobao was putting it all together.