Disaster-Zone Dispatch: Trying To Get Back On Their Feet

This post was written by CBS News correspondent Celia Hatton, who reported from China on the Sichuan earthquake, and now revisits some of the people she met there.
Read her Evening News report here.

When reporting from a disaster zone, it's often far too easy to reduce a entire event to a series of sterile numbers – the number of people killed, the dollar amount of damage done and precisely how long it will take for things to get back to normal.

China is home to one-fifth of the world's population, so there's an even stronger temptation for reporters here to allow huge numbers to dominate a major story: Sichuan's earthquake left 80,000 dead, more than 8,000 missing and about 5 million homeless. Even people living near the quake's epicenter had a hard time grasping the scale of what had happened.

So sometimes, it can help to focus on just a few individuals affected by a disaster. For more than two weeks in May, I worked with the tireless CBS News crew to highlight every angle of the Sichuan earthquake for our viewers back home. We met dozens of people throughout this chaotic period, but one stands out in my memory: a 22-year-old woman named He Chuan Tao. We were first introduced to Tao when a surgeon practically dragged our camera crew into Tao's room, telling us she was known as "the angel of the hospital." She was still smiling, he said, despite losing both her legs in the quake.

In many ways, Tao's story is typical of many Chinese of her generation. She is the daughter of poor rice farmers who earn less than $100 a month. By working hard in school, she was able to use her parents' life savings to go to college. After graduating with a chemistry degree, she found a stable job in the laboratory of a local factory and began to support her parents, to repay them for all of their years of sacrifice.

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Unfortunately, in one brief moment in May, the whole family was pushed back to the brink of poverty. Tao's factory was located near the epicenter of the May 12 quake. When it hit, she was standing at the top of a flight of stairs and was jolted downward as the ceiling above her collapsed. Suddenly, she was trapped alone, pinned under a massive piece of concrete. She could see the sky through a tiny opening in the rubble and she refused to let herself to drift off to sleep, for fear that she'd lose her chance to be rescued.

At last, Chinese workers found her and spoke to her through the small hole in the rubble, giving her sips of milk to keep her hydrated. After three days, crowds cheered as she was pulled out of the building's wreckage but just hours later, Tao's mother wept as surgeons amputated her daughter's legs.

"I lost consciousness when I got to the hospital, and when I woke up, my legs were gone," Tao said. Amazingly, she didn't seem to experience any sadness over her newfound disability. "I'm much luckier than so many others. It's good for me to treasure my life."

Months later, the CBS Beijing crew returned to Sichuan to see how Tao was doing. She remains in a rehab facility, living in a small hospital room with her devoted mother by her side. Every day, she practices walking with the prosthetic legs issued to her by the Chinese government, although she still can't move very well. The prosthetics she uses are too heavy for her thin frame. However, her family can't afford lightweight American-made prosthetic legs that would allow her to walk more easily.

Tao's smiles come less often now. She has lost a huge amount of weight as worries over the future prevent her from eating. Like so many others in Sichuan, Tao has no job to return to and believes she won't find a similar one again unless she can move around with ease. She jokes that she wants to be able to walk again so she can go shopping with friends and to wear pretty skirts again.

But in her quiet moments, she admits her biggest concern: Finding a way to make money so can support her aging parents again. They gambled on their daughter's future, hoping she would help them in retirement and she doesn't want them to regret that decision. One day, Tao vows, she'll find a way to provide for her family, allowing all of them to get back their feet again.