TANGSHAN, Hebei, July 26 (Xinhua) -- For 40 years, Zhao Shangang tried to find the two nurses who treated him like family after he was pulled from the rubble of his home in Tangshan following the horrific 1976 earthquake.
On finally being reunited with the two women in Qingdao last month, a city 700 km from Tangshan, he was overwhelmed by tears and unable to speak, despite having heavily rehearsed a thank you speech.
During the aftermath of the quake, Chu Meiying and Wang Zhenyu were attending nursing school in Qingdao and working as interns at the county hospital where Zhao was treated.
Zhao, just 11 years old at the time, was one of more than 100,000 survivors who were transferred to distant cities for treatment after the magnitude 7.8 quake flattened Tangshan, destroying virtually all public facilities, on July 28, 1976.
"Chu and Wang treated me like their own brother," Zhao said in an interview with Xinhua Monday.
"With their meager allowance, they often bought me nutritious food."
Before Zhao returned home, the two nurses completed their internship and went back to school.
"They gave me a notebook enclosed with their photos and autographs as a gift. But I was too young to express my thanks properly, and too careless to ask for an address," he said.
On returning to Tangshan, Zhao began his 40-year search for the two nurses. He called health authorities in every district and county in Qingdao.
"People just told me it was impossible to find someone in a city of nine million people if you only know their names."
His letters to the county hospital and the nursing school were never answered, but his dream came true after he posted a message with the two womens' names and photos on WeChat in June. The message was forwarded millions of times among WeChat users, eventually helping him find Chu and Wang, and a meeting was arranged for them in Qingdao's Laoshan District.
"No words can express my thanks. Their love and care helped me live through the darkest days," said Zhao.
Zhao is not the only Tangshan resident who feels he owes thanks.
Sun Hu habitually calls an old obstetrician in Shanghai to say hello and send holiday greetings.
Dr. Zhou Juanhua, 92, brought Sun into the world in a tent in Shanghai on August 4, 1976, just a week after the quake. Sun's mother was already suffering from labor pains when she was pulled from the rubble of her home.
"My mother said she had a difficult labor; there was no water, electricity or even a table in the tent. She was placed on some old newspapers on muddy ground, and Dr. Zhou knelt on the floor for seven hours to help her deliver," said Sun.
Her mother named her "Hu", which is an alias of Shanghai, to convey the family's gratitude to Dr. Zhou and her team of medical workers.
Coincidentally, Sun's husband was born on the same day.
"His name is Guo Zhenjun: Zhen for earthquake and Jun for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) that saved thousands of lives from the ruins of the Tangshan quake," said Sun.
The quake claimed more than 242,000 lives and about 7,200 entire families died in their sleep.
Within days of the quake, thousands of people flooded into Tangshan to help with the rescue operation. Among them were 100,000 PLA soldiers, 20,000 medical workers and 30,000 technical workers.
Many, many others lent a helping hand.
Letters and remittance slips sent from unnamed sources nationwide are still kept at a public library in downtown Tangshan. One of the letters, from northwest China's Gansu Province, reads, "Please accept the 200 yuan I have saved and give it to people in need in quake-ravaged Tangshan."
A retired civil affairs official in central Henan was collecting relief supplies for Tangshan after the quake when he saw a pig tied to a tree outside his office.
"Next to the pig was a big sack of wheat. Under the sack I found a note, which read, 'a little something from my family,'" he said.
GIVING SOMETHING BACK
Chang Qing, 81, a native of Tangshan and veteran of the Korean War, was working as a photographer at the city's exhibition hall when the quake struck. All seven of his veteran friends died in the disaster.
"As a survivor, I felt obliged to do something for the sake of the dead," he says.
He began recording scenes of the devastating earthquake, the rescue progress as well as Tangshan's post-quake reconstruction on his camera.
"For 40 years, I took photos of Tangshan: how new homes, factories and public facilities rose from the ruins and how the 4,202 quake orphans grew up."
His two-bedroom apartment is now piled with photos and negatives, which he treasures.
"Tangshan is a city stained with blood and tears. It's just a relief I can do something for it."
For quake survivors like Chang, the disaster did not just leave a scar on their minds, but also injected them with a sense of heroism and selflessness, prompting them to lend a helping hand to those in need.
Shortly after a powerful earthquake shook southwest China's Sichuan Province in 2008, a team of 600 volunteers from Tangshan arrived to help. Zhang Xiangqing, an orphan from the 1976 quake, donated 110 million yuan in cash, the largest sum from any individual donor.
When Dong Huijuan, China's first Ph.D. specializing in the psychology of post-disaster trauma, gave counseling to quake orphans in Sichuan, she could not shake off the nightmares of her youth. The 1976 quake killed her parents and brother, and left the 17-year-old sitting alone in the ruins for three days straight.
"It was the same scene in Sichuan, the same rubble and the same tearful children," she said.
"History sometimes repeats itself, but I was determined to lift those kids from their nightmares."