Volume 86 Issue 40 | pp. 52-53
Issue Date: October 6, 2008

In Memory Of Luo Xiaoming

Chemistry teacher caught in deadly earthquake loses his life while saving his students
Department: Science & Technology
Total Loss
All that remains of Dongqi High School's teaching building is rubble. The standing building was the students' dormitory.
Credit: Jessie Jiang/C&EN
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Total Loss
All that remains of Dongqi High School's teaching building is rubble. The standing building was the students' dormitory.
Credit: Jessie Jiang/C&EN

LUO XIAOMING didn't teach on Monday afternoons, but May 12 was an exception. A half hour before what was to become one of China's deadliest earthquakes in history, Luo showed up in a classroom just 18 miles from the epicenter, and all he had on his mind was how to make condensation reactions interesting to a bunch of aspiring arts students.

From experience, he knew that would not be an easy job, so he had worked hard on his PowerPoint slides. As it would turn out, what those students would take away from the session would tragically transcend chemistry.

Luo had been on the phone with his wife, Gu Peiying, that morning. The couple had been living apart since 2005, when Gu moved to Deyang, an industrial city 45 miles northwest of Chengdu, capital of the western province of Sichuan. Luo, however, stayed 35 miles from Deyang in a town called Hanwang, where he had been teaching chemistry at Dongqi High School for more than 20 years. It was a routine conversation between the couple—Luo asked about their 17-year-old son, Sujian, who was going to high school in Deyang, and he mentioned to his wife that he had just finished teaching a class.

That night, as word spread throughout China that the heaviest casualties in Sichuan came from the schools, "I thought he was fine," recalls Gu, 43, months later. But what she didn't know was that her husband stayed at the school and sat in for someone else that afternoon.

The quake began at 2:28 PM, and Luo Xiaoming was not fine.

What ensued in the next two minutes was utter chaos, according to Luo's surviving students. The ceiling shattered and large chunks of bricks dropped like a blizzard. Panicking students wailed as they struggled through the blocked path to the door. "Run! Run! Away from the buildings!" Luo shouted as he evacuated four students and himself out of the first-floor classroom. Then he dashed back into the danger zone.

By then, thick dust had enshrouded the school as mountains grumbled in the background and shattering walls claimed lives. Luo, 46, hurled himself back into the classroom and strained his body to hold up the deforming doorframe, allowing a dozen more students to make their way out. In this heroic act, he made the ultimate sacrifice. Luo's body was finally found on the morning of May 18, almost at the end of the rescue effort.

Left Behind
Luo Sujian poses with his deceased father's picture.
Credit: Jessie Jiang/C&EN
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Left Behind
Luo Sujian poses with his deceased father's picture.
Credit: Jessie Jiang/C&EN

"I think optimism is one of the main reasons behind his behavior at that point," says Gu, a longtime employee of Dongqi, the local power generator factory to which Dongqi High School was affiliated. "He probably had never thought about death when the earthquake struck, and even when he was buried deep in the rubble, the only thing he'd possibly blame would be the bad luck."

Gu was not alone in praising her husband's optimism—many of Luo's friends from college were also impressed and inspired. Bei Zhang, one of Luo's classmates from Southwest University (then called Southwest Normal University), in Chongqing, who hadn't seen him since their graduation in 1983, says Luo always stressed the brighter side of life.

Zhang Xiaobin, another classmate of Luo's, had maintained their friendship throughout the 25 years since college, during which their families got together at least once every year. Although based in Chengdu, Zhang drove 45 miles to Hanwang every day to check on the rescue process at the wreck of the four-story school building. He also kept other classmates updated on Luo's status through text messages and an online alumni networking site.

Zhang's memory of Luo was as a humble but cheerful guy who would smile at everyone he bumped into. "People loved to be friends with him," Zhang told C&EN during a recent drive to Hanwang. "He probably wasn't a straight-A student, but he definitely had a lot of character."

LUO WAS UNUSUAL among his peers in that he stuck with his teaching job for all those years. More than half of his college classmates who majored in chemistry teaching have switched careers as China has undergone drastic transformations. Zhang, for example, now runs his own medical equipment trading company in Chengdu, and Bei, who is eight years Luo's senior, earned a computer science degree in the U.S.; she is now a Web developer based in Washington, D.C.

Luo "was an ordinary man who had accomplished extraordinary things."

Not that Luo didn't think about taking a break from teaching. He briefly tried working as a technician at a local factory in the late 1980s but went back to teaching because, according to his wife, the technician job was too mechanical and didn't relate to the chemistry he had learned in college.

Despite careers that have drifted apart, the class of 1983 that Luo belonged to has remained a close-knit group in cyberspace. When it became clear that Luo was trapped under a crushed building, traffic on the alumni site surged to hundreds of visitors per day who inundated its discussion board with prayers and eager inquiries about Luo's status.

After their worst fear was confirmed on the morning of May 18, this online group sprang into action. Several of Luo's best friends quickly initiated a fund-raiser to support his family, and perhaps more important, they started to communicate with Sujian and Gu, hoping to somehow relieve the pain of losing a loving father and husband.

"I constantly wonder how hard it must be for Xiaoming's wife and son to stand up and face this tragedy every day," says Bei, who is now in frequent contact with the Luos. But Sujian seems to be coping well. Like his father, the piano-playing, basketball-loving high school student tends to form an instant bond with people around him. Even in the days just after losing his father, Sujian kept excellent grades at school while also playing basketball and, occasionally, computer games. He says he and his mother plan to visit the site of the high school every year as a tribute to his dad's bravery and sense of responsibility.

Nearly four months after the disaster, the crumbled Dongqi High School building is still a sea of debris. The government has demolished what remained of the building after the earthquake. Those students who survived have returned to temporary classrooms on the outskirts of Deyang.

No mention of Luo or any of the other 13 teachers who died in the earthquake appeared on the school billboards outside these temporary classrooms, but in private, Luo's colleagues were eager to share their memories of and their respect for him. "His death was the biggest loss of the school," says Lei Yongming, a biology teacher at Dongqi, who had known Luo for over 20 years. "He was an ordinary man who had accomplished extraordinary things."

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society

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