A Death In Dalian
"Oh, the oil is so thick here. How come there are people out in the water?"
"What are they doing?"
Out of curiosity, the photgrapher Jiang He from Zhejiang province pointed his camera at the Dalian fireman Zhang Liang. Jiang He said that he never expected that Zhang would die.
334 seconds and 68 photos later, Jiang He's camera from above recorded a black-oiled covered hand slowly sinking into the ocean.
Jiang He found himself in a dream-like state, his heart was pounding, his throat was choking such that he could utter any sound.
Zhang Liang was dead, right in front of Jiang He's camera. Jiang He said that he was very rueful, because he knew how to swim himself. That choice of helping to rescue versus taking photographs will weigh heavily in Jiang He's mind for a long time hence.
Jiang He is 50 years old. He has been a photographer for 30 years. Most of the time, he films major pollution incidents around China. On the third day after the Dalian oil spill of July 16, he came to the location.
"Someone asked me why I didn't come to film the explosions. What is there to film so late now?" Late night on July 25, Jiang He explained from a Dalian hotel. "I am not interested in explosions. I came here to film the polluted ocean."
At around 4am on July 20, Jiang He was walking alone towards a iron ore factory. Between 4:30am and 5:30am he walked, stopped and filmed alternately. At around 8:20am or so, he reached Nanhai Harbor.
This is actually not a harbor. It is one of many bays along the Dalian coastline. It used to be a piece of wetland full of weeds. Now it has been filled up for construction.
When Jiang He got on top of the reef, he almost slipped. "The crude oil that got on land was slippery. You can slip if you are not careful."
Jiang He saw that the crescent-shaped bay was covered by heavy crude oil. But he was even more stunned when he saw people in the polluted ocean!
From the reef on the east side of the bay, Jiang He took his first photo. This photo with serial number MG 5377 was taken at 8:25:48.
In the person closer to shore was waving a bayonet in his left hand. The person on the right had his back bare. The light flesh color made an extreme visual contrast with the pitch black oil floating on the ocean. According to local fishermen, the oil was as thick as 30 mm.
Very quickly, Jiang He realized that the two men were firemen who were trying to clean out a pump in the ocean.
Jiang He said that the persons in the ocean reminded of the seabirds in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, where the heavy crude oil caused the wings of the seabirds to stay glued.
At the time, Jiang He wanted to film the two persons climbing back on the fishing boat after completing their work. Jiang He imagined that there would be a stunning scene of the two persons covered with black oil all over their bodies.
The bad sign began at 8:25:48. The next five minutes would be unforgettable for Jiang He for the rest of his life.
The two firemen that Jiang He was filming were named Zhang Liang and Han Xiaoxiong. Both were from the the Dalien fire department. They were responsible for operating a set of firefighting equipment that are the most advanced in Liaoning province (perhaps even in all of China).
According to the bulletin from the press conference: The long-distance water supply system for firefighting included two floating pumps which can pump water from ocean to shore where two pumps can add more pressure in order to send the water to the firefighting front line. There is also a transfer pump in the front line from which more than ten different pumps can be served. The water can be supplied at a rate of 8,000 liters per minutes as far as six kilometers away.
An informed source within the fire department provided an additional detail: This system could not be produced in China; the whole system was assembled in Germany.
Nevertheless, this 30,000,000 yuan system had a fatal flaw in this ocean oil spill incident.
According to the informed source, "The floating pump was never designed to deal with an oil spill. The pump got clogged by the oil. Once the floating pump went out, the other equipment down the line was useless."
According to the informed source, Zhang Liang and Han Xiaoxiong would not have get into the ocean if not for the problem with the pump. "This equipment runs itself. All you have to do is throw it into the ocean and that would be it."
Due to this design flaw, Zhang Liang and Han Xiaoxiong had to enter the water every other hour to clean the pump. The seaside residents also tried to invent various ways of modifying this advanced equipment so that it wouldn't be blocked.
According to a press release from the local public security people: "According to local resident Lu Hanshen, 'I thought that they could not keep going into the ocean so often. So I took my fishing net and got Zhang Liang and them to make a ring around the pump. But the pump was too powerful and the net was ripped. More waste products such as weeds entered. So I removed the net ...'."
This blend of imported technology and local invention did not work. So from July 16 to 20, Zhang Liang and Han Xiaoxiong had to get into the water to clean the pump at 8:30am.
Jiang He took 36 photos between 8:25:48 and 8:28:56 on July 20. He pressed the shutter once every four seconds on the average.
In those 36 photos, Zhang Liang was seen using a bayonet about 30mm long to remove the seaweeds and other stuff that were clogging the pumps.
In the tenth photo, Zhang Liang was seen cutting off the rope that tied the floating pump to the fishing boat. This pump and another steel cable anchored on shore held the pump in a fixed location.
Jiang He still does not understand why Zhang Liang severed that rope.
On July 26, Dalian fire department instructor Zheng Zhanhong conjectured that the floating pump had been pushed too near shore to work. So Zhang Lian had to move the floating pump back into deeper waters.
Another eyewitness supported Zheng Zhanhong's conjecture. The underwater landscape in Nanhai Harbor varies a great deal. Some parts are tens of meters deep while other parts are only waist-deep. The floating pump was driven by the waves to rest on top of a reef. In order for the pump to draw enough water, Zhang Liang had to sever the rope and push the floating pump towards deeper waters.
This explanation was verified in the 37th photo. Zhang Liang has discarded his bayonet. He pointed his finger in the direction of the ocean and indicated that the floating pump should be pushed towards deeper waters.
At 8:30:26, Jiang He saw from his high vantage point that Zhang Liang seemed to have been violently pushed away from the floating pump. Han Xiaoxiong was pulling the floating pump. When Han saw Zhang leaving the floating pump, he rushed towards him.
The true danger began from the moment that Zhang Liang left the floating pump.
"At that moment, I realized that something had gone wrong. But I never imagined that the consequences would be so serious. I thought that two 20-something-years-old guys should do alright. Besides another person was heading over to his rescue right away."
Jiang He held his camera up and continued to film.
According to later media reports, Zhang Liang left the floating pump because he was knocked off by a sudden wave.
But Jiang He does not agree. His rapid series of photos did not show any big wave. Jiang He said, "No photos, no truth."
So what caused Zhang Liang to suddenly leave the floating pump? The danger might have come from an undertow.
On July 26, Dalian fire department publicity department Cui Wei said that it was ebb tide in Nahhai Harbot that morning. The undertow rushed over towards the shore and recede quickly. "With the heavy oil slick on top, there may seem to be no waves. The ocean surface seems to be calm, but there is actually a strong undertow below."
He said that the undertow could be as speedy as 8 knots per hour, which is the speed of an ordinary fishing boat. How could a human withstand that?
Cui Wei also saw the photos taken by Jiang He. He had grown up by the seaside. He pointed at the bubbles and eddies on the pitch black ocean and said, "That is the dangerous undertow!"
On that day, the Dalian weather forecast was: Strong winds, class 7 to 8.
On the night of July 25 at a hotel in the Dalian Development District, Jiang He hugged the reporter from behind to illustrate how Han Xiaoxiong grabbed Zhang Liang. They were not more than 5 meters from shore. But Zhang Liang's life ended because they could not cross those five meters.
"The oil spill killed him. If there was no oil, there was no way that they couldn't swim five meters." Jiang He clicked on the computer mouse to show the photos.
In Jiang He's photos, the two remained stationary no matter how hard Han Xiaoxiong pushed Zhang Liang from behind. The two were "glued" down at the same spot by the heavy raw crude oil. Just like the seabirds in the Gulf of Mexico whose wings are glued, they struggled to no avail.
In the photos, the ocean was covered with shiny oil. The two men sunk deeper and deeper into this endless black quagmire.
"At that moment, I sensed the danger. I quickly yelled for the villagers to get ropes." Jiang He said.
Because the land around the bay was newly developed, the villagers were unable to find any ropes. Villager Cao Yanchun recalled that there was nothing but a black Santana car in the empty lot.
In Jiang He's photos, Han Xiaoxiong can be seen yelling repeatedly. Zheng Zhanhong recalled that Han was yelling, "Instructor, Zhang Liang is going down. Save him."
Zheng Zhanhong said that he jumped into the black oil as soon as he heard the cries. Jiang He captured that scene.
In the photos, a military man in green camouflage uniform was spreading his arms like an eagle going after a small chicken. Zheng Zhanhong said, "I was really very anxious. I wanted to get my guys back safely."
During the 22 seconds between 8:31:02 when Zheng Zhanhong jumped into the ocean to 8:31:24 when Zhang Liang sank into the ocean, Jiang He took 10 photos to record the entire process.
On one hand, Zheng Zhanhong used his forward momentum to push aside the oil slick. On the other hand, Han Xiaoxiong kept lifting Zhang Liang out of the water. During this time, Zhang Liang went under the oil slick twice but Han Xiaoxiong lifted him out again.
In Jiang He's photo, Zhang Liang had his head completely submersed under the oil. Han Xiaoxiong desperately grabbed Zhang Liang's black hand. Han Xiaoxiong tried to transfer Zhang Liang's hand over to Zheng Zhanhong.
The first transfer was unsuccessful. Han Xiaoxiong did not give up.
The second time, Han Xiaoxiong put his own head down under the water and attempted to raise Zhang Liang's hand up from underneath.
At the instant, Jiang He thought that it was the final moment. He took down the photo with serial number MG5445. The time was 8:31:22.
In that photo of the pitch black ocean, Han Xiaoxiong raised Zhang Liang's water out of the water. But the black hand sunk slowly downwards. Zheng Zhanhong said, "The oil was too slick. I grabbed his hand, but it was too slippery to hold on to. I grabbed his head, but he kept sliding downwards."
Zheng Zhanhong recalled painfully, "Do you know how it feels? It is the feeling of the closest person to you slipping away from your finger tips. There was nothing that I could do. It was almost total despair."
8:31:22. Jiang He took his 68th photograph at that instant. Zhang Liang died in that photo.
Jiang He said that he became scared when he saw Zhang Liang's hand sink down. He realized that there may be no hope for Zhang Liang. After he took this photo, his body began to shiver. He could not make any sound.
When the spectators saw what was happened, they began to stir.
One villager named Liu pulled up his trouser legs and wanted to dash into the ocean. When he got into the water, he suddenly remembered: "Fuck, I don't know how to swim!"
Because it was windy that day, many of the fishing boats had sailed off. Only a few fishing boats were by the seaside.
The villager Zhu Lei leaped onto his own boat ready to give help. He turned on the motor which went out in a few seconds. "The oil was too thick. The propeller was trapped immobile by the oil."
Meanwhile on the ocean, Zheng Zhanhong and Han Xiaoxiong looked around. Then Zheng Zhanhong said, "It is over for Liang. You come back to shore with me."
A few minutes later, Zhang Zhanhong and Han Xiaoxiong followed the ocean wave and climbed onto a fishing boat. In Jiang He's photo, the two men were completely covered in black oil. They screamed at the ocean, calling Zhang Liang's name. Several minutes later, Han Xiaoxiong passed out.
"It was an extremely shocking scene. I don't want to think about it. From that moment, I was uneasy. At the scene, I knew how to swim besides the instructor." Jiang He said.
Around 2pm, the body of Zhang Liang was found underneath the fence of an aquatic farm. According to fisherman Wang Xiaokan, the body was floating in oil. "It was like cookie with a filling. The oil was top, the water was below and he was in between."
Jiang He uploaded some of his photos onto the Internet. Even as the netizens were awed by the sight, they also condemned the photographer for not taking part in the rescue.
The next day, Jiang He read the news stories from the various newspapers. The text was provided by the Xinhua News Agency, but all the photos were his.
It was then that he learned the deceased firefighter was 25-year-old Zhang Liang, who was due to go on leave the next day in order to get married.
On that day, the Ministry of Public Security declared Zhang Liang to be a revolutionary martyr.
"I am really rueful. I have thought about what would happen if I did not film and went down to save him instead." Jiang He kept thinking.
On July 24, a memorial ceremony was held on behalf of Zhang Liang at the Jinzhou Funeral Home in Dalian city. Jiang He attended as well. He said that he was sorry that the party responsible for the incident was absent. Zhang Liang died because of the spilled oil!
On the afternoon of July 26, the Metro Express reporter went down to Nanhai Harbor for the third time. The oil on the water had been scooped up by the fishermen. But the villagers were helpless about the oil that had gotten stuck on the rocks. On the white dam in the distance, the black oil had left a long line.
In the sunset, the crane picked up the oil drums filled by the fishermen. It was a stunning sight. The black oil drums reached as high as 20 meters and blocked the sun.
On that day, Dalian city announced that an important victory has been reached as the basic clean-up of the pollution caused by the biggest petroleum explosion in the history of China has been completed!
Jiang He took almost 300 photos, which was a full record of what happened on that day.
Recently people kept calling him to tell him, "Zhang Liang had a safety rope around him." Each time he replied: It is what the photos show.
Jiang He believed that Zhang Liang did not have a safety rope when he went into the water. Another villager who was with Zhang Liang on a daily basis confirmed this point.
This fisherman who requested anonymity said, "They don't come down to the ocean often. They don't know how tough the ocean can be. They needed to enter the water every other hour. They didn't use safety ropes."
But this assertion was rejected by the local fire fighting department. Zheng Zhanhong said, "The rope was tied to a steel cable." The photo did not show the rope because it was tied around the waist underneath the water.
On the day after Zhang Liang died, the Dalian Development District government held a press conference. A public security bureau official said that an examination of Zhang Liang's body showed that the rope broke.
Jiang He said: If there was a rope, there was a rope; if there wasn't a rope, there wasn't a rope. If Zhang Liang had a rope, then so should Han Xiaoxiong. But when Han Xiaoxiong got ashore, he had no rope around him. Did his rope also break?
It is a taboo subject within the local firemen to ask whether there was a safety rope. Each time the Metro Express reporter brought the subject, fire officials cut him off.
According to people who are familiar with the fire-fighting system, "They used to throw that kind of pump into the water and let it work. They didn't need anyone to get into the water. So why would the fire department need to prepare safety ropes?"
8:28:58 Zhang Liang points at the pump
8:30:52 Zhang Liang begins to sink down
8:31:20 Deng Zhanhong leaps into the ocean to help Zhang Liang
8:31:20 Han Xiaoxiong tries again to life Zhang Liang up from under the water
8:31:22 Zhang Liang's hand falls slowly into the ocean
8:35:22 Two people are screaming for Zhang Liang
8:48:20 The others try to save the unconscious Han Xiaoxiong
8:49:44 The oil-covered Han Xiaoxiong is brought ashore
Related Link: (The Big Picture, Boston.com) Cleaning Dalian Harbor