BEIJING, June 12 — Wedding photographer Wang Qiang eyed the gloomy skies with a sense of forboding. In the nearby courtyard, a stylist applied cosmetics to his newlywed friends and clients Deng Li, 28, and Huang Fang, 25, clad in white wedding attire.
Days earlier, the couple had asked Wang’s advice on a suitable outdoor setting for their wedding photographs. Wang, owner of a photography studio in Chengdu, recommended Bailu Academy, a deserted catholic seminary hidden halfway up a mountain slope in Bailu township, Pengzhou county. The timelessly peaceful scenic spot is both a tourist attraction and a popular backdrop for wedding photos.
They arrived at noon. “The weather was weird. It was sunny in the morning, but turned overcast and cold,” Wang recalls. “I saw bees hovering on the way, something I had never noticed on previous visits.”
Wang says there were 33 people at the seminary that day, including five other couples and photographers from two studios.
As his team began their preparations to shoot after a quick lunch, Wang suddenly heard a loud cracking sound overhead. Looking up, he saw to his horror the roof beams in the main seminary building splinter and fall. As he fled to the courtyard he saw panic-stricken people running out of the chapel opposite which was violently vibrating.
He realized he was in the midst of an earthquake. When he looked at his watch, it was 2:28 pm. He was then plunged into a smoky, dust-filled darkness. It was only after the 10-second tremor stopped that the air cleared and he could see and breath freely again.
Every one was gray-haired and coated in thick dust. “The brides and grooms in their smudged makeup and muddy, dust smeared wedding costumes looked really bizarre,” Wang recalls. All present gazed dumbstruck at the pile of rubble where the seminary, which would have celebrated its 100th anniversary a week later, once stood.
The seminary had taken more than two decades to build, but was demolished in just seconds. Only half of the front wall to the church was still standing.
Luckily, no one was hurt. But, all 33 people in the remote village were completely cut off from the outside world; the road to it had been destroyed and there was no mobile phone signal.
Then it started to rain. Other distraught newlyweds and photographers took refuge in cars, but Wang’s team had parked theirs at the foot of the mountain. Bride Huang Fang shivered with cold. The heels of her shoes had broken in her haste to escape, and she was barefoot. A woman villager gave her clothes and shoes that she salvaged from the wreckage of her house. They then worked together with the local villages to build a rude shelter of wooden boards and plastic sheets.
At 4 pm, they heard news on the car radio that Wenchuan was the epicenter. Huang Fang burst into tears. Her Tibetan family members lived in nearby Wolong.
Villagers shared their dinner of porridge and eggs with the couple. As they slept, men took turns keeping watch, in case of aftershocks and landslides.
Photographers and newlyweds walked two hours back to town along ripped up, narrow mountain paths roads, dangerously close to boiling rivers. Wang’s team took a mini van to Pengzhou, while Deng Li and Huang Fang returned to Guanghan, Deng’s hometown, which had suffered surprisingly light damage in the quake.
Huang made contact with her family five days later. All of them were safe.
Deng has since returned to work, teaching history at the local middle school. Huang, an employee of the Lixian county tourism bureau, is still waiting for news from her office.
When the couple spoke to Wang recently, they told him that their love for each other has grown even stronger since the quake. They now want to bring forward the date of their wedding banquet, originally planned for August. They also want to choose another location for the photos that will complete their wedding album.
Wang took a photo of the Deng couple, tremulously hugging and smiling, shortly after the quake. “As I viewed them through the lens, the words ‘zhi zi zhi shou, yu zi xie lao’ (To hold your hand, to grow old with you, from the Book of Odes) came to mind,” Wang recalls.
All 33 people at the seminary that day have pledged to revisit its ruins in the future.