Moments Later – Classroom, Wuhan, China
Spence lay on his side on the linoleum floor, his arms covering his face.
Opening his eyes, the air was thick with suspended dust.
Putting his hand on the floor, he paused to sweep aside debris, mostly glass, before pushing himself up to a seated position.
Glass fragments covered his shirt and pants and when he shook his head, more fell from his hair.
Both arms had long scratches with fresh blood welling up.
His right ear was ringing much louder than his usual tinnitus. He reached up to touch it and his fingers came away wet with blood.
Through his left ear, he heard someone crying. In the silence between gasps he heard moans from many others.
Regaining his bearings, Spence looked around the classroom. It was barely recognizable. Bright daylight poured through the window frames, most devoid of glass and the long green shades no where to be seen. There were dozens of bare spots on the ceiling with several of the sound-proofing ceiling tiles hanging down at odd angles. Every one of the long grey desks had been tumped over. Everything on the floor was covered in a whitish dust.
Ghostly shapes writhed on the floor. They were students, covered in dust.
Like him, a few were sitting up. One of them a few feet from Spence shook his head. A shower of sparkles fell out followed by a fine white powder. He started to run his hand through his hair but quickly withdrew it and looked at the palm. Spence could see fresh blood. The student leaned farther forward and shook his head again and another set of sparkles, bigger pieces than before, fell to the floor.
A few students were on their feet now and moving to help others.
Someone toward the back on the right and near the window shouted something but Spence couldn’t make it out. A student in the far back left corner climbed over debris and opened a red box on the wall. He took out a smaller box with a white cross on the front, clambered over debris to reach the first student where they knelt down together to a third on the floor.
We’re going to need far more than one first aid kit, Spence thought.
Starting to rise, Spence looked to his right nearest the blown out windows. Two students were holding their faces. Another, no more than eight feet from Spence, lay in a very large pool of dark red blood. It was a girl. Spence could see weak dribbles of blood rhythmically ooze from the young girl’s neck.
She’s almost pumped out, he realized.
A student near the wall away from the blast took off his shirt and began ripping it into strips. Looking at Spence, he yelled in English, “Make bandage. Stop bleeding.”
Spence nodded and removed his own shirt, picked up a pointed shard of glass and used it to start rips that he tore into two inch wide strips.
Half a dozen students were now moving around the classroom trying to bandage wounds.
“Don’t rub eyes,” one of them shouted after presumably saying the same thing in Cantonese. “Broken glass everywhere, on hands, in face. Don’t rub eyes!”
Minutes passed as they bandaged open wounds before Spence heard the sirens of emergency vehicles. There was also a deeper siren sounding farther away. It wasn’t moving. The sound reminded Spence of the air raid siren test he’d heard every Saturday at Noon growing up in Memphis.
Pausing to look through the empty window, Spence noticed a thick column of black smoke off to the west while, directly below, three Police cars moved past the building on the asphalt walkway, lights flashing as they swerved left and right to get through the debris. They were followed by a bright red fire truck. It also roared past without slowing and disappeared down the path to the right.
Spence shouted, “Someone go downstairs and get some help up here for us.”
Two students nodded and, stepping over the wounded and debris, went out the door at the back of the classroom.
Minutes later, the two students returned with three others in grey uniforms carrying two long white cases. One of those in uniform directed the two students to clear a space and pull tables together. The other two in uniform started opening the cases and taking out bandages, splints, syringes and other medical supplies. They then began moving around the room examining the wounded. Some students were directed to the other side of the room. Others were carried near the tables set up in the back. And some were simply left, unmoving, where they lay.
Spence was herded into the first group.
These are the lightly wounded, he realized.
Spence’s wounds had mostly stopped bleeding and the only lingering effect was a strong ringing in his right ear. He heard nothing else on that side. Through his left, sounds were muffled but loud sounds and words got through.
After several minutes standing and waiting, Spence grew impatient.
This is stupid. I can help.
“Let’s see if we can get more help,” he announced to the students standing with him. Several nodded.
They left together and went down the stairs stepping around fallen roof tiles and light fixtures.
Coming out of the ISS building and looking straight ahead, several trees had been knocked over. All lay to the left. Following the direction their roots indicated to the right, the column of black smoke still rose up. It was thicker now than when he’d looked out from the classroom.
Two more fire trucks screamed past going toward the black smoke.
Still shirtless, Spence started jogging in that direction. His students followed.
After about two hundred yards, they came out into a debris strewn clearing. Around the edges, remnants of low concrete walls sketched a large rectangle. Segments of roof lay upside down on the pavement out from the center of the clearing.
Three fire trucks were stopped to the left. Firemen on one hose were spraying water toward a large roaring inferno as others deployed hose and equipment from the trucks.
Broken gas line? Spence guessed.
One of his students tapped his arm, pointed to the center of the wreckage and said, “Main library. Main library was right there.”
At the center, the area was clear in a rough circle twenty feet in diameter. But, looking further and further out from the center, there was more and more debris until about a hundred feet out, the piles were jagged and as tall as a single story building. In that ring, steel girders stuck up at odd angles, bits and pieces of walls, pipe, roof tile, tables and chairs were mangled together.
Spence heard a woman’s voice crying softly.
The student that had tapped his arm pointed and said, “There!”
Moving carefully forward into the debris opposite the huge flame, Spence saw what he thought might be an elbow.
“Here!” he shouted.
Working carefully, they removed broken boards and roof tiles.
One of the students reached in to grasp the elbow and pulled but then jumped back. It wasn’t an elbow and it wasn’t a knee. Whatever it was, it was no longer attached. More than that, Spence didn’t want to know.
The voice cried out again. A different student shouted, “Here!” and began moving debris. By the time Spence got there, they had started lifting her out but her leg was stuck. Spence could see a bloodied bone sticking out just above her right knee. He pointed to it and said, “Don’t twist her leg.” Two students leveraged a long board up and the leg was free. They carried her out and toward the still assembling medical help.
Returning to the carnage, they moved to try and help dig out more victims, but the firemen flagged them away.
One of his students translated the fireman’s instructions, “If they’re still alive, moving things wrong could kill them. Let the experts work now.”
Spence retreated to the waiting medical personnel where he was again sorted into the lowest priority group. The large flame continued to roar. It was exactly the same size and Spence concluded his first guess must’ve been correct, that a gas main had broken and was feeding that flame.
Another hour passed before Spence was at a hospital a few miles from the University. He was sitting on an examining bench wearing the blue scrub shirt they’d given him.
A Chinese doctor was looking in his right ear.
“Ear drum ruptured but you lucky. Split edges touching. It heal OK. You won’t need …” the doctor paused and then carefully pronounced, “tympanoplasty.”
The doctor taped a bandage over the ear.
“No touch! Keep dry. Do not blow nose. No sneeze!”
Great, Spence wondered, how’m I going to manage that?
“Very important,” the doctor went on, “do not blow nose. In two days, remove bandage, clean outside — outside only. Put on new bandage. Keep dry again. Remember, no blow nose! In two weeks, have doctor look. He tell you what to do.”
The doctor smiled, “But no worry. Hearing come back soon. Month, maybe two, it come back. You be OK.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Spence said. “Have you seen many of the students? How are they?”
The doctor paused before answering. “Many hurt. Many very bad. Some dead. More still there. Very bad. Nurse say she never see anything so bad.”
“Do they know how many were killed?” Spence asked.
The doctor shook his head, “Several dozen? Hundred? Hospitals all full.”
“Do they know what happened?”
“Police say gas but,” the doctor leaned closer and continued, “library always busy. I study there. I know. Gas smells. Someone would notice. That no gas leak.”
He added, “My wife professor. She say bad things happen this semester. Two knife attacks and several beatings. These happen in other parts of China before. Now here. She say bomb.”
Spence remembered what he’d seen in the debris. “There was a clear space in the very center but no hole. Just everything swept away in a circle.”
The doctor and Spence looked at each other. Neither of them believed it had been a gas explosion.
The doctor shook his head, “If anyone at center, nothing left.”
A taxi took Spence back to the hotel.
Up in his room, Spence emptied his pockets and changed to one of his own shirts before noticing the blinking LED on his cell phone. Someone had tried to contact him.
“Oh shit!” he exclaimed realizing Megyn would be frantic with worry.
Without checking voice mail or messages, he called her number and held the phone to his left ear. She picked up on the first ring.
“Spence? Spence? Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m all right. Just a few cuts and bruises, sort of.”
“My God, this is unbelievable. I was watching TV with Mom and Dad when they broke in with the report. They say the gas to the heating system in the library was leaking and it exploded. The building is completely destroyed and several students— they didn’t say how many— were killed. They’re interviewing the Chief of Maintenance for the school.
“Where were you when it exploded?” Megyn finished.
“I was in the classroom. The shock wave broke one of my eardrums but I’m OK now. We went down to help but it was much worse where the blast happened and, with the destruction, trying to get the wounded out, and then being herded away by the officials, I never did get back to the classroom.”
Spence went on, “I don’t know what the news is reporting but I don’t think that was a gas explosion. At the center of the blast area — we were there trying to help in the rescues — there was a black scorch mark on the concrete. You could see where the linoleum had been ripped away. A gas explosion would be more spread out, not concentrated at one point. This looked more like a single point for the explosion.”
Spence could hear Megyn take a deep breath and then let it out.
“My Dad said the same thing but for a different reason. His friends are telling him of terrorist activities in different parts of the country. The official news says very little and, of course, almost none of this gets outside of China. It’s got to be really big or they cover it up. Anyway, his friends say things are getting worse, not better. Dad said it was only a matter of time before someone targeted something here. The University with predominantly students from wealthy families makes it a spectacular target.”
Spence made a decision.
“Megyn, I’m leaving. I’m going tonight or tomorrow morning, as soon as I can.”
“I completely understand, Spence. This is a horror. A pure horror. I’m sure the school will close — already has closed. They can’t possibly go on. I’ll talk to Dr. Xiaosheng. I’ll see if I can talk to him now and then call you back.”
But it was more than an hour before Megyn called back.
Spence was just finishing his third King Long beer in the lobby dining room and thinking maybe he should try to eat something.
“I’ve got bad news,” Megyn announced when he answered her call on his cell phone. “Class is on for tomorrow. They’re moving you to a different building. They want you to finish the class just like normal.”
“What?” Spence couldn’t believe it. “Half of my class including myself will be wearing bandages. I don’t even know if anyone in the class was killed but they want to go on as if nothing happened? This is crazy!”
“I know,” he could almost hear Megyn nodding as she spoke. “It seems crazy to me, too, but Dr. Xiaosheng said the University Provost was in communication with the Police who, in turn, called in the Central Commission in Beijing. There’s something called the Department for the Comprehensive Management of Public Security. It’s nationwide. Their experts say it was a gas explosion, probably caused by a leak in one of the old gas pipes in the utility tunnels under the library. They are saying the company that repaired it last month must have done something wrong. They called the Provost of the University directly and he now insists we go on with class. He says that will avoid any unnecessary alarm.”
“No, Megyn, that’s not right. An explosion down in a tunnel would’ve blown the top of the tunnel off or left a big hole. I was there and there is no hole.”
Spence took a breath before continuing, “I’m leaving China. I’m a citizen of the United States and doctor whatever his name can’t stop me.”
Megyn spoke quickly, “They know that. Dr. Xiosheng and the Provost talked about what you might want to do. They agreed that while you have the right to leave anytime you wish, they said they would very much appreciate a chance to talk with you before you make any irrevocable decisions. I told them I would relay their request and, if you are OK to a meeting, I can pick you up. I’ll go with you to the meeting since it affects us both. Since I handle the US side of these special seminars, this is kind of important to the whole program, you know?”
Spence chewed his lip. The school was obviously pressuring Megyn to get him to stay. He didn’t like that. If they had a problem with his actions, they should talk to him.
“I’ll meet but I don’t like it. They’re trying to use you, our relationship. I don’t like that one bit.”
“I know,” Megyn sighed as if she’d had the same thoughts. “I’ll pick you up in five minutes.”
“Five minutes?” Spence exclaimed imagining her at her parent’s home an hour away. “Where are you?”
“I’m here at the University in the Provost’s office with Dr. Xiosheng. I’ll be outside your hotel in five minutes.”
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