When soldier Li Dingyong crawled into a tour bus that had been deformed by falling rocks, he was saddened to find the bodies of two tourists.
Jiuzhaigou is a popular tourist destination in the mountains on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in southwest China's Sichuan Province. A major earthquake struck this other-worldly landscape on Tuesday night, turning what was supposed to be a joyful night for tourists in the remote summer hideaway into a nightmare.
According to the provincial government, the death toll has risen to 20, with 431 injured. Thousands of rescuers were dispatched to help with relief efforts in Jiuzhaigou.
Right after the earthquake, Li, 30, and his fellow soldiers were told to clear the clogged highway, save the injured and search for missing people and vehicles along the 301 provincial highway, which connects the Jiuzhaigou tourist area and the Huanglong Jiuzhai Airport.
The road is the shortest route between the airport and the tourist area about 80 km away. Every year during summer and winter holidays, countless passengers from around the country visit Jiuzhaigou via the airport. But following the earthquake, the highway has become the best way to transport stranded passengers eager to leave Jiuzhaigou.
"After the earthquake, the highway became impassable because huge rocks and tonnes of dirt from landslides caved onto the road," Li said. "The ensuing quakes and landslides stranded tourists and destroyed buses and passenger cars on it."
As slabs of rocks and loads of dirt continued to fall on the highway, Li and 19 fellow soldiers decided to walk and continue rescue work with their bare hands and several flashlights.
"We saw about 40 tourists near a tourist village not far from the highway, some of them injured, and we brought them to safety," Li said.
At the most clogged section of the highway, the rocks and dirt formed a huge mass of around 10,000 square meters, Li said.
"When fewer rocks and less dirt fell, the soldiers just covered each other and ran quickly over the area through all the dust," he said.
Li and other soldiers spent the entire night walking back and forth to transport tourists and clear the highway. He said he walked about 60 km on the highway.
When they finally reached the tourist site, it was already 11 a.m. on Wednesday.
"I felt a bit tired after reaching the tourist site," he said. "I did not sleep for 30 hours."
Like Li Dinyong, Ma Ti was also tasked with transporting tourists stuck near the highway.
Ma, 33, said he was among 80 soldiers sent by the prefecture-level public security bureau to assist with relief efforts.
"We saw more than 150 tourists stuck in a forest near the highway on Wednesday, two of them severely injured," Ma recalled.
As the quake cut telecommunications and electricity, the tourists were unable to contact the outside world, and they were overwhelmed by anxiety, hunger, and exhaustion.
"Some of them were crying, and some wanted to walk out of the woods by themselves with luggage," Ma said.
To ensure smooth relief work, Ma comforted them and asked them to save their energy while waiting for orders about what to do.
Eventually, the soldiers decided to transport them to a transfer area through the piles of rocks and dirt.
"We put them in groups of 30 and guided them to safety in about two hours," he said. "Everybody was tired, but we were glad that they made it to safety."
One of the tourists got quite emotional after being taken out through the dust.
"I just feel very grateful to our soldiers," he said. "They put us on their backs and carried us out of danger." The tourist said that at one point, Ma and his fellow soldiers even formed a "human wall" hand in hand to block the falling rocks and dirt and help the tourists pass.
"If it were not for them, we could not have made it," said the tourist. "They were just amazing, and I know that people can always count on them when we are in danger."
Currently, about 800 rescuers are still helping handle the aftermath of the quake in Jiuzhaigou's Zhangzha County, close to the epicenter, a county official told Xinhua Thursday.