Volunteers from the Blue Sky Rescue Team undertake a practice drill in Xingtai, Hebei province, on Friday. (Photo: Xinhua/Zhu Xudong)
The deadly event forced the country to improve the emergency rescue system.
The 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, one of the deadliest natural disasters in China's history, marked a watershed in the country's approach to emergency relief. In the 10 years since the temblor, which claimed more than 69,000 lives and left nearly 18,000 people missing, there has been a 200-fold rise in the number of State-backed and volunteer rescue groups. Meanwhile, the equipment used to find survivors and save lives has become increasingly sophisticated.
Many of those who took part in the Wenchuan relief effort spoke later of the heartbreak of seeing trapped people dying but being unable to help because of a lack of equipment allied to poor rescue skills. The experience was the start of China's efforts to upgrade the country's disaster response capabilities, especially in the establishment of volunteer rescue teams.
While even 10 years ago rescue work was mainly conducted with shovels and ropes, today it is common to see volunteer teams using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, and thermal-imaging equipment to pinpoint the location of survivors trapped in rubble.
When the Blue Sky Rescue Team, the country's first registered nonprofit volunteer outfit, took part in the Wenchuan relief operation, its members were untrained outdoors enthusiasts. Team leader Zhang Yong described the outfit as a scratch team with huge enthusiasm but limited experience and almost no equipment.
Recalling the rescue a decade later, he said the words that sprung to mind were "sad" and "powerless" because, lacking equipment and skills, the team could only help to transport relief materials.
"Often we knew someone was buried in the rubble nearby, but we were powerless to help," he said, recalling a man who was pinned down in a gap between fallen rocks. Zhang and his team were able to pass a rope to the man, who tied it around his waist. However, he was wedged so hard that it was impossible to pull him free. Despite 10 hours of efforts to rescue him, the man died. To make matters worse, his mother and brother were at the scene, constantly appealing to Zhang and his team for help.
While the members of the team were badly affected by their "failure", the incident made them determined to develop their skills. In the years that followed, Zhang and his fellow leaders organized regular training sessions that focused on a variety of rescue techniques and the use of professional equipment. The voluntary organization now has about 30,000 members who form 419 teams across the country.
"If a disaster strikes within China, one of our teams can be at the scene in about four hours," Zhang said.
In addition to domestic operations, the team has taken part in at least eight relief missions overseas, including the Nepal earthquake in April 2015. The first batch of Blue Sky members arrived at the affected area just one day after the quake, fully trained to deal with a variety of tasks.
Using thermal-imaging apparatus and state-of-the-art lifting and securing equipment, the team, including Blue Sky experts, spent 15 days in Nepal searching for survivors, restoring water supplies and providing medical services to more than 2,000 people.
"More than 70 international rescue teams participated in the Nepal earthquake operation and found 178 bodies. Our 84-member team found 24 of them," Zhang said.