There were maybe 150 of us gathered near a collapsed building where rescuers believed a still living person was trapped.
The group consisted of Chinese and foreign journalists, including the major television networks, medical workers, ambulance attendance, firefighters, and emergency relief personnel skilled in the use of devices like a pulse detector.
Suddenly, the horns of vehicles parked nearby started to sound and I remembered that the nation was to come to a halt for three minutes to commemorate the tens of thousands of victims of the May 12 earthquake exactly one week after it occurred.
Soon, the ambulances began to sound their sirens as well. It was cacophonous. A line of relief workers stood at attention, their white helmets under their arms.
Then it was over. The relief workers went back to the task at hand, trying to pull another living person from the rubble.
Earlier in the day, police had handed a group of us surgical masks and ordered us to wear them as we looked through the town. In fact, they asked us to wear two, one over the other. I didn’t quite get the meaning of the masks. Certainly, the smell of death lingers over cities like Beichuan. But I don’t think the smell is toxic.
I walked up a slope of rubble trying to get a better view. But first I had to wait as relief workers came down, bringing body after body in bags slung from metal poles.
The smell of rotted flesh didn’t bother me as much as walking on the rubble. I kept thinking that I had no idea if anyone might still be alive under where I was walking, wishing for a helping hand.
The other thing that is hard to explain unless you are there is the impact of seeing the huge landslides that have ripped down the mountains, and the mammoth boulders lying everywhere. I can’t imagine being in the middle of a quake when such boulders are raining down from the slopes. There would be nowhere to hide. I looked at a culvert and thought it might have been safe. Then I realized it, too, could have been covered by a landslide and turned into a tomb for the living.