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DUJIANGYAN, China — Louis Choi sees ghosts. They are in the heaps of concrete that once sheltered school children. They are in the new school buildings in recovering Sichuan province. They are in his dreams.
"It was devastating, those early days," he said about arriving in this city where about 900 children and teachers died when their school collapsed during last year's 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Choi, a Cisco Systems engineer, was at the scene as soldiers pulled children, limp like rag dolls, from the wreckage — as they neatly stacked school book bags of crushed students for the parents to pick up — as mothers and fathers ceaselessly called out the names of their buried offspring.
"I saw it over and over again. You couldn't avoid it," he said between deep exhales, his face reddening.
Choi immediately left his job in Cisco's Beijing office, where he developed technology plans for the banking industry, and moved to China's southwestern region to oversee the San Jose-based networking company's $45 million earthquake assistance program. He is one of hundreds of employees from many of Silicon Valley's elite companies who headed to the quake zone after the life-shattering disaster on May 12, 2008 — killing about 70,000 people and with 18,000 missing and leaving nearly 5 million people homeless — to help with the healing and rebuilding.
It serves foreign companies well to play the role of good corporate citizen in China, where gaining favor with local Communist officials can pave the way for smoother business relations. It can showcase new technology in a nation growing at a rapid clip. But the primary motivation for most technology company workers was emotional: to do something constructive in the face of nature's fury.
Deeply personal event
For many, it was a deeply personal event. Their legs went wobbly as the ground buckled underneath them that spring afternoon. They lost family and homes.
"People huddled on the floor, trembling, assuaging each other. Everyone was calling home, but rarely could anyone get through," recalled Intel employee Tony Li. "I had no way to know about the safety of my grandmothers, my parents and my brothers. Were they alive? I didn't know. All I knew was they lived only kilometers away from the epicenter."
He later learned two relatives died in the quake. Powerful aftershocks, some more than magnitude 6, continued to cause casualties and damage.
Intel regularly dispatches buses full of workers to assist schools rising from the ruins. Google's foundation has sponsored a nearly $3 million program through U.S.-based nonprofit MercyCorps to help children cope with the visions of friends buried alive. And Cisco assigned Choi to manage the three-year installation of equipment to create state-of-the-art classrooms.
They joined the more than 1 million Chinese who raced to the destruction zones — an unprecedented outpouring of volunteerism in this country — and more than 145,000 soldiers mobilized to pick through the rubble for survivors, as well as the flood of nearly $1 billion in donations from the nation's corporations.
The disaster had employees and companies competing to out-give each other. The Chinese media goaded them on — publishing the names of top corporate givers to prod others to donate more. Soon after the earthquake, former Intel Chairman Craig Barrett visited the disaster area, as did Cisco CEO John Chambers.
"I remember saying, 'Even Jackie Chan gave more than Intel (about $1.5 million). We've got to up the ante,' " said Mike Mendenhall, general manager of Intel's chip testing and assembly plant in nearby Chengdu. His company has since committed $5 million for computer labs, e-learning software for 200 schools and teacher training plus about $2 million for general relief raised from employees with matching company funds and Intel's foundation. In addition, Intel employees volunteer to teach classes and lead other activities.
Choi, 55, was told by a top Cisco executive in China that the company could not guarantee he'd have a job after this three-year stint in Sichuan province. "This is an uncertainly I'm totally willing to accept," said the engineer, who has deep family ties to the region. "I told him right away, 'I'll go.' "
Hitting kids hard
The destruction was particularly severe for schools and children. School buildings crumpled like paper, killing 5,335 students. Meanwhile nearby government buildings remained virtually untouched, adding to the anguish of parents who faulted shoddy construction for the deaths of their children.
The earthquake's epicenter was 19 miles from Hanwang township of Mianzhu city, where the hands on a tower clock are frozen at 2:28 p.m. Buildings with collapsed floors, missing walls and leaning this way and that still have clothes hanging in balconies. A 2008 Beijing Olympics banner droops from a street archway.
"How can I describe it? It felt like it was the end of the world," said Wu Qi Lu, who fled his violently swaying building into the street. "We had no hope."
Though Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, survived virtually unscathed, the city of 11 million nonetheless received a horrifying shaking that people call the longest three minutes of their lives. "We could see the floor rolling. Everybody was running everywhere," recalled Intel's Mendenhall, a former Fremont resident.
Scores camped out at Intel's campus, which became a temporary tent city for a month. "You could feel their fear," said Hu Minxian, Intel's volunteer facilitator whose first day on the job was when the quake hit.
Now, in addition to company-sponsored volunteer time, many spend free hours helping children piece their lives back together. They teach special classes on math and computers — or simply hang out on campus with students still battling nightmares. More than 90 percent of the company's 3,000 Chengdu employees volunteer.
"One student painted a picture of a ghost chasing him," Hu recalled. "He had such a strong fear in his heart."
On a recent outing to Longfeng Zhen school in Pengzhou County, Intel employees showed up to teach courses such as digital moviemaking and organized team-building exercises.
"The first time we saw the children here, there was no light in their eyes," recalled CY Yeung, Intel's director of corporate responsibility. "They had this dazed stare."
The school complex, which houses nearly 2,000 elementary and junior high students, has been rebuilt.
Nerves remain jangled
On this early September day, students streamed by, rice bowls in hands, in lines to the cafeteria for lunch. Spotting foreigners, they giggled, pointed and called out, "Hello."
But more than a year later, nerves remain jangled. Teachers say they had a tough time getting students to enter the new second-floor classrooms.
Amid the crumbling of the buildings during the earthquake, adults had to plead with panicked children not to jump off the second floor as the stairways jammed with fleeing students.
"It's still a little bit hard for all of us," said Eugene Yu, a 26-year-old Intel systems analyst. "The children are very excited to see us. But if you mention what happened, they can get emotional very quickly."
More than 3,300 schools were destroyed in the earthquake, said Liu Cong, a director with the Sichuan Province Education Department. By the end of this year, most will have been rebuilt, he said.
Choi, Cisco's on-site liaison, has zigzagged across the province the past 16 months, revisiting areas that lost hundreds of children.
There is the village of Xiange that, he said, saw a generation wiped out when its middle school collapsed. "That's why they don't have a middle school anymore," said Choi, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes.
At the Friendship School in Dujiangyan, Choi inspected the campus as networking equipment was being installed. The newly opened school for grades one through nine has also been outfitted with wheelchair ramps and handicap assistance bars in bathrooms.
Nearly 150 disabled students — children who lost limbs after being trapped under tons of classroom concrete — attend the school. Fourteen-year-old Huang SiYu, whose leg was amputated after her school collapsed in Yingxiu, has just enrolled in the school. Because of her injury, she missed a year of school.
Before "the thing" happened — her phrase for the earthquake — she wanted to be a dancer, she said. Now, Huang added, "I want to learn English well."
Choi watched her move stiffly down the hall, leaning on a teacher and another student, who also lost her leg. "This really helps to ease my sorrow," he said.