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Woman's trip skirts edge of earthquake tragedy

Sally Schatz, 86, of Tarpon Springs was in Chengdu, China, on May 12, when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck.

RITA FARLOW | Times

Sally Schatz, 86, of Tarpon Springs was in Chengdu, China, on May 12, when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck.

TARPON SPRINGS — Sally Schatz and her friends were hungry.

It was after 2 p.m. when she and 14 other travelers in her tour group arrived in Chengdu, China, on May 12, and no one had eaten lunch.

They skipped checking in at their hotel, headed across the street, and up two flights of stairs to a restaurant.

The group ordered a traditional Chinese lunch with soup, noodles, pork and vegetable dishes.

Before Schatz, 86, could take a bite, the table began to wobble. Plates and bowls bounced around in front of her. On the wall, a television was swaying from side-to-side.

"The building shook and rattled and rolled," she said.

The Tarpon Springs resident and her companions were swept up in the aftermath of the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Sichuan province in central China. The epicenter of the massive quake was just 50 miles from Chengdu.

By Friday, officials declared nearly 69,000 deaths and another 18,618 people still missing. The region has been rocked by powerful aftershocks in recent weeks that have caused more deaths, collapsed hundreds of thousands of buildings and brought fears of widespread flooding from compromised dams and "quake lakes" created when landslides caused by the quake blocked rivers.

Schatz said she and others weren't sure what was happening at first, until a couple from California clued everyone in.

The young tour guide looked panic-stricken, then sprang into action and told the group to get on the floor, Schatz said. She and others lay on their stomachs until the building stopped rumbling.

"We got up and held onto each other and managed to get downstairs and out of the building," Schatz said.

It was in the stairwell that fear crept into Schatz's mind. For a moment, she did consider the possibility that the end was near.

"It's just like when you avoid an accident. You're not frightened until afterwards," she said.

Across the street, columns at their hotel were cracked, forcing an evacuation. People exited nearby high-rise buildings and flooded the street, Schatz said.

She and her fellow travelers boarded their bus — a place of refuge in the ensuing chaos. They headed to a parking lot, where thousands sat on the rumbling ground, waiting out afterschocks that seemed never ending, Schatz said.

"We were fortunate we were able to get out so quickly," she said.

Back on the bus, they headed south, driving for several hours before finding a hotel with room to take them in.

"Don't ask me what city we went to," Schatz said. "I do not know. They took us somewhere to eat."

Afterwards, exhausted group members headed straight for bed. "Everybody was weary from the day's experience," she said.

The travel company — Overseas Adventure Travel — contacted family members to let them know the group members were safe. They were rerouted for the remainder of their three-week trip, staying away from hard-hit areas.

Schatz and other tourists watched local and international television stations to keep up with news about the disaster. They worried about the survivors, especially the parents who had lost their only child, and prayed for the dead, who grew in number daily.

Schatz never did get to see Chengdu, which she and her late husband, Louis, had missed during their first trip to China in 1982.

Schatz, who retired as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, has been to Australia, Japan, and much of Europe.

But she has never experienced anything like the earthquake, she said.

After a full day of flying, Schatz returned home May 21.

Memorial Day, Schatz was baking chicken for an afternoon party and looking at photos from the trip that had just come in the mail from a friend.

It was an extraordinary trip forever marked by tragedy, Schatz recalled.

"I'm just glad to be home," she said.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

Woman's trip skirts edge of earthquake tragedy 05/31/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 31, 2008 4:32am]

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