At the heart of the rescue

USAR FOCUS – SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE

Published:  30 March, 2009



Over 69,000 people were killed during the earthquake that occurred on May 12, 2008, in Sichuan province,
and which measured around 8.0 on the Richter Scale. It led to possibly the greatest rescue effort in modern
history as regards structural collapse incidents. F&R interviewed the China Earthquake Administration, one of the many agencies involved in the response.

The earthquake struck on the 12th of May at 14.27 hrs. Within a short time after, the command structure of the China Earthquake Administration (CEA), the agency responsible for co-ordinating earthquake relief operations on a national level, had assembled in a meeting to discuss the start of immediate rescue operations. The command was informed that the epi-centre was situated in Beichuan, which lies in a rural area 160km away from the provincial capital Chengdu. At that moment they already knew they faced a difficult task. As time was paramount, the first focus was to send the rescue teams to the scene. The provincial teams were contacted and at the same time rescuers were.

The CEA was at the incident for 22 the teams in Beijing were being made ready to leave. Beijing lies consecutive days almost 2000km away from Chengdu and the fastest way to get  fire brigades and army personnel had already commenced.


Unfortunately fire stations in worst-hit Beichuan city were affected due to collapsed buildings. This affected the availability of resources, which were already limited as Beichuan is a relatively poor city. To make things worse, the supply and transport of new resources from Chengdu was very difficult due to the mountainous environment and dangerous situations that were caused by landslides and damaged roads.
The CEA has an emergency plan as part of its standard procedures for these types of situations. Despite this, it could not have foreseen the scale of the disaster and despite the many difficulties it faced during the rescue operations, however, the standard plans and procedures were carried out efficiently.
Fortunately, the CEA teams are well trained for earthquake events of this magnitude. The CEA used the following types of equipment in its response:

life detection equipment and optic fibre cameras for locating victims in the debris


hydraulic cutting tools for cutting hard materials such as metal reinforcements in concrete.


saws and drills to break down large sections of concrete.


lifting bags and jacks for lifting debris.


shoring equipment for securing buildings and creating safe


passageways. The rescue teams of the CEA successfully rescued 243 people.


“No team member will ever forget the rescue of a lady who was buried under the debris for nearly nine days.”
Every one of these was a major experience for the personnel directly involved. No team member will ever forget the rescue of a lady who was buried under the debris for nearly nine days.
In the first few days after the event, displaced people were relocated to nearby villages where special camps had been set up to house them. The co-operation between the rescue teams that came from all over China went very well. Every team had a designated task and the team leaders were instructed by the general command. Some personnel were at the disaster scene for 22 consecutive days. Although chances of finding survivors decrease dramatically after the first 24 hours, they did not suspend their rescue operations and worked in shifts of 10 to12 hours around the clock. This assertive approach resulted in several successful rescues.
The 8,000 aftershocks recorded during the two weeks after the initial event, increased the risk for responders substantially and posed a great challenge. Although earthquakes on this scale are not expected to happen frequently, the Chinese government has made plans to further develop measures to be ready in case such events occur in the future.

Floris Evers of Holmatro says that bigger does no longer mean stronger. High-pressure technologies have resulted in tools and pumps that are light and compact while still being very powerful. (Photo courtesy of Xinhua and CNS Images.)


  • Operation Florian

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