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American tourist joins pandas in 'surreal' earthquake ordeal

by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) May 17, 2008
An American tourist who survived China's deadly earthquake says he is not only lucky to be alive -- he had a "surreal" experience of sharing the moment with giant pandas.

Robert Litwak, 55, a member of the World Wildlife Fund, was stranded for nearly three days near the famous Wolong giant panda breeding ground in southwestern Sichuan province.

When the 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck early on Monday afternoon, Litwak and 11 other American tourists were in the enclosure with the pandas.

"It was surreal. I was spinning around, trying to gain my footing, and as I looked up, I saw a panda trying to do the same thing."

Litwak and the other tourists were a mere six miles (10 kilometres) from the epicentre of the earthquake, which officials estimate has killed more than 50,000 people and left nearly five million homeless.

Yet none of the tourists -- or the pandas -- were killed or even injured.

"This is a miracle," Litwak said.

"We were all terrified -- our tour guide learnt some American-English slang, put it that way."

They had come to China on a tour that included a visit to the world-renowned Wolong Panda Reserve, which has 86 of the endangered animals in captivity, as well as countless others in the wild.

Litwak said he saw three different landslides around them.

"About 200 yards (180 metres) ahead of us, there was an avalanche of rocks, and it took out the road," he said.

"There was another closer to us, about 15 metres (50 feet) away. It came down and I thought it was going to kill some of the pandas.

"The manager of our tour said it was a miracle that no people were killed, but also that no pandas were killed."

Litwak recalled the frantic evacuation of the centre, with tourists having to climb a ladder and rush across a bridge, and the devotion of staff desperate to ensure the safety of the pandas amid the chaos.

"As we were waiting there, the staff were running across the bridge holding panda cubs and putting them in a safe building," he said.

"After leaving the centre to make sure all humans were alright, the staff went back to check on the pandas."

Litwak and his fellow travellers were taken to Wolong village, where the local hotel had been closed down along with other buildings.

They stayed in their bus in the parking lot from Monday to Thursday morning, when helicopters arrived to fly them out of the stricken area into Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

China has been arranging to pull out hundreds of foreign tourists from the earthquake zone, while relatives back home anxiously await news about loved ones.

There are no known foreign casualties, although Germany denied Friday a claim by the Chinese embassy in Washington that a German national had died in the quake.

Litwak said all the Chinese people the tourists had dealt with during their ordeal had overwhelmed them with their kindness in adversity.

"The locals asked us to have the food before them, the Wolong hotel food was pulled out of the building, and their chefs came out and cooked for us under a rain-soaked tarpaulin," he said.

"At every turn, we were met with generosity."

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China okays rescuers from Russia, SKorea, Singapore: state media
Beijing (AFP) May 16, 2008
China has accepted offers from Russia, South Korea and Singapore to send rescue teams to earthquake-hit Sichuan province, state media reported early Friday.







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