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Firefighter holding baby tugs heartstrings online

By HUANG ZHILING in Chengdu and MA CHI | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-09-09 09:55
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Zhang Zili, a forest firefighter who lived through the magnitude-8.0 Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, transfers a 2-month-old baby to safety on Tuesday after the magnitude-6.8 earthquake in Luding county, Sichuan province, the day before. [Photo/Xinhua]

The photo of a 20-year-old firefighter tenderly holding a 2-month-old baby in his arms has touched the hearts of people bombarded with scenes of destruction in the wake of the magnitude-6.8 earthquake in Luding county in the Garze Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.

The death toll from the earthquake on Monday had risen to 86 by Thursday. Thirty-five people remained missing and more than 400 were injured, according to the Sichuan provincial government information office.

At around 5 pm on Tuesday, Zhang Zili, a firefighter from the Wenchuan Brigade of the Forest Fire Fighting Detachment of Sichuan's Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture, and brigade members were involved in a search and rescue operation in Wandong village, Detuo town in Luding.

"It is a village located halfway up the mountain. The road to the outside was completely destroyed. We used ropes to pull trees or climb to reach the village," Zhang said.

He found a baby two months and 10 days old with his grandmother sitting by the ruins of a house.

The baby's father, also a firefighter, was participating in rescue operations elsewhere. His mother and grandfather were severely injured and sent by a helicopter to Luding's neighboring city of Ya'an for treatment.

"The baby boy's head was bruised in the earthquake but the injury was not serious. As his grandmother had not eaten for a day and was fragile, I carefully held him. He soon fell asleep and did not wake up until I crossed the river with him and his grandmother to reach the ambulance of the Luding county hospital," Zhang said.

Zhang's brigade had urgently set up two rescue channels in the village. The air rescue channel relied on helicopters to transport people seriously injured while the water rescue pathway relied on kayaks to transport lightly wounded and uninjured villagers.

The photo of Zhang holding the baby soon went viral, and people noticed the word "Wenchuan" on his left armband, indicating that he was from the Wenchuan brigade. Zhang was hence lovingly referred to as "Wenchuan Brother".

Wenchuan is synonymous with one of the darkest moments in national memory. On May 12, 2008, a magnitude-8.0 earthquake with its epicenter in Yingxiu town in Wenchuan county, Sichuan, killed over 69,000 people and left 17,923 missing.

Zhang, who was born in January 2002 in Sichuan's Maoxian county bordering Wenchuan, was attending a sports class when the Wenchuan earthquake struck. In the carnage, he and his classmates were crying and did not know what was going on.

"My village is only about 30 kilometers away from the epicenter of the Wenchuan earthquake," he said.

His family home was brought down in the earthquake, and Zhang and his family lived in a temporary shelter set up in a school playground.

"I remembered the tent we lived in was dark, and I was scared," he said.

A People's Liberation Army soldier comforted Zhang, teaching him songs and playing with him.

The soldier kept saying "Don't be afraid, we are here now". The words left a deep impression on Zhang.

He recalled how emergency supplies were air-dropped from helicopters and how PLA soldiers built tents and offered instant noodles to locals.

This year, when the Wenchuan brigade was recruiting firefighters in May, he did not hesitate to join, hoping to save people just like the PLA soldiers. In less than four months, he has taken part in several forest firefighting missions and rescue operations.

According to Zhang's squad leader Peng Ke, many Wenchuan Brothers have participated in the search and rescue operations for the Luding earthquake.

Of the 74 people from the Wenchuan brigade, many are locals from Wenchuan. With an average age of 27, they experienced the Wenchuan earthquake and want to help people facing similar difficulties.

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