At 2:28 p.m. on May 12, 2008, on an otherwise ordinary afternoon, the ground in China began to tremble. Something had fractured deep within the earth, rending and ripping, turning peaks into valleys and valleys into tombs. When the wave of destruction hit, countless fragile lives were lost and many more were injured. Sichuan’s once-lush landscape was turned into a desolate wasteland, a swath of death.
Freight train no. 21043 was carrying over 600 tons of grain and 12 tanks of aviation fuel through tunnel no. 109 on the Baoji–Chengdu railway when it collided with a massive boulder displaced by the quake and derailed. An hour later, the fuel tanks exploded, engulfing the train in flames and trapping two conductors in the engine carriage. It was a moment that will remain etched in our memories forever: a moment of great tragedy and suffering, but also of great love and determination. Both conductors were quickly rescued and survived the ordeal. It was the only railway disaster of the 2008 Wenchuan/Sichuan earthquake.
When I saw the news reports and photos of the train tragedy, I was badly shaken. In a single blow, our whole philosophy about human beings conquer ing na ture had been demol ished. I
remember thinking that I should acquire the train cars and fuel tanks and preserve them. After a convoluted and frustrating process, I finally managed to get in touch with the salvage company in Xi’an that had possession of the train. By then, the oil tanks were already gone and they were planning to sell the remaining wreckage to a steelworks to be melted down. I asked them to hold the train for me and flew to Xi’an with some friends the next day. The salvage company didn’t care what I was planning to do with the train, but as soon as they realized I was serious about collecting it, they raised the price and said they were willing to sell it.
After the contract was signed, our technical director, photographer and a documentary team drove all the way from Shanghai to Xi’an. It took two weeks of hard work to transport the two sections of the train back to our workshop in Shanghai.
As a monumental l y impor tant “witness to history,”the train is worth preserving. At a time when the whole world is looking toward the future, preserving the past seems more important than ever. Reflecting on the disaster, investigating the causes, mitigating future dangers and finding ways to live in harmony with our environment rather than trying to conquer it—that’s where the real future is, the tunnel of hope that leads to tomorrow.