Forty-Eight Hours of Hell: Stranded on a Train in China’s Summer Floods

Issue No. 53

Greetings from Chinarrative!

As the scorching Chinese summer turns to autumn, it’s leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Like their counterparts in California, Siberia and southern Europe, many communities here are counting the cost of extreme weather thought to be made worse by human-induced climate change.

In July, the central Chinese province of Henan made international headlines when vast amounts of rain triggered floods that killed more than 300 people and affected millions. While media attention focused on deadly deluges in cities like the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, the experiences of many survivors were largely overlooked.

In this issue, we dive into the story of some 900 people in Henan who were trapped on a train for two days due to severe flooding farther down the line. While all of the passengers survived, they endured shortages of food and water, inadequate sanitation and the agony of what seemed like an interminable wait.

The article below originally appeared in the Chinese publication Media Fox. It was written by Zhou Hang, Cai Jiaxin and Wang Yiran, edited by Wang Shan, and translated for Chinarrative by Chyn Lim.

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Forty-Eight Hours of Hell on a Stranded Train

By Zhou Hang, Cai Jiaxin and Wang Yiran

Home should have been just another hour away. The K31 train had arrived in Zhengzhou on time after 24 hours, with just two stops left on its long journey — Yanshi and Luoyang.

A bunch of passengers scrambled aboard — homebound young boys, mother-and-daughter pairs of day trippers, exam-bound university students, fangirls on their way to autograph sessions. Each made their way to their hard-seat carriage.

Train tickets were unusually hard to come by on the pouring afternoon of July 19. The K31 was the only option for most people, many of whom snapped it up as it was cheap — just 19.50 yuan (about $3) from Zhengzhou to Luoyang.

Du Juan in carriage 12 did just that. She had just lost her job and was heading home to Luoyang. If all went well, she would get to have mom’s green chili pepper omelet tonight.

With over 900 passengers on board, the train pulled out of Zhengzhou Station and accelerated. About 20 minutes later, it stopped on the tracks with a boom.

It was around 4:25 p.m. on July 19 and the sky outside the windows was dark. At this point, most passengers saw the rain as an ordinary occurrence and thought this would be a temporary hold-up. Du was even in the mood to check out her makeup.

No one expected that, like many other trains on the Longhai Line, the K31 would become like a desert island in this continuous rainstorm, trapping them all in its 18 carriages.

Flavorless Noodle Soup

The public address system sounded just as the K31 came to a halt. There was a collapsed culvert ahead and it would be 7:30 p.m. before the train could get moving again.

At this point, the passengers chose to wait patiently. Save for some sporadic complaints, people got on with what they would usually do: fiddling with their phones, snacking on melon seeds and fruit, or just propping up their chins in a daze.

Before she got onboard, Du had downloaded several episodes of variety shows. Now, captivated, she followed the screen as it switched from one male celebrity to another. Like many others who boarded at Zhengzhou, she packed neither food nor a power bank­­. Most of her suitcase was filled with cosmetics.

Time trickled by. The expected departure time came round, but the PA system remained silent. Some passengers began to lose their patience, for the first time. They got up to ask the conductor when the train would start moving again, but the answer was always “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” or “Wait patiently.”

It got dark early and the rain seemed to pelt the windows with more ferocity. The K31 was low on supplies as it was so close to its scheduled destination. Dinner tonight was plain noodle soup with a few strands of seaweed floating in it.

Still, the passengers remained optimistic. Some bought the noodles only to throw them out and use the plastic cup to refill hot water from the tank on board. There was hardly a line in the dining car. Most people chose to bear with their hunger.

The first thing to disappear was cell phone power. There are no power outlets in hard-seat carriages on K trains. Passengers formed a long line outside the conductor’s compartment. As soon as Du joined the queue, those before her immediately turned around to inform her that each person was allowed 20 minutes of charging time. Carriage 14 was even more stringent — just 10 minutes. Two girls volunteered to keep watch over the power point in the dining car, enforcing a strict rule of no more than 30% battery charge per person.

On the first night of being stranded, the K31 peaked with anticipation and disappointment. First, a freight train and another passenger train roared past, one after the other. Their headlights flashed by, lighting up hopes. But the answer someone got from a crew member was disappointing: These trains were on a different route from the K31.

Another few hours passed. At 1 a.m., the train suddenly started moving, sparking applause in several carriages. But it came to a halt again 20 minutes later.

The PA system stayed silent. No one gave any reason as to why the train had moved. It was later revealed that K31 had stopped at Mugou, a small fourth-tier station with a staff of 10 people who could provide assistance.

No green chili pepper omelet tonight for sure. On the other end of Du’s phone, anxious family members kept asking for updates. Du persuaded them to go to bed. Some passengers began feeling unwell: Li Xiaoyu, a girl in carriage 15, saw that her mother’s legs were severely swollen, so they took turns lying down. Li said she and other passengers believed that the road would be repaired overnight, and the train would resume its journey the following day.

The rain kept falling. Some passengers made themselves comfortable on the floor, falling asleep to the rhythm of the rain.

No Way Forward or Back

By dawn on July 20, the downpour seemed heavier, with rain falling at an angle, whipped by the wind. Some passengers lamented that they’d never seen such heavy rain.

Everyone soon saw that the K31 was in a critical situation. The train had stopped in a ravine where muddy water was gushing down a steep slope and rising above the height of the wheels. A passenger in the dining car saw saplings tumble down the hillside and crash onto the tracks. Another saw a large tree in the distance fall the same way.

At the rear of the train, which was close to the slope, passengers were in even more of a panic. Screams accompanied every landslide. Farther back, yellow mud slammed into carriages 16 and 17. Multiple passengers felt their carriage beginning to tilt, especially toward the back of the train.

Despite all of this, there were no announcements. This made the passengers increasingly anxious. Those in the hard-seat carriages were the first to protest. Some rushed to the dining car and demanded that the crew provide charging stations for mobile devices and food, as well as a “comprehensive solution.” Some banged on the door to the staff quarters, demanding an explanation.

Demands to charge phones were the first to be met. The dining car and carriage 8 both had power outlets. Toward the front of the train, hard-sleeper carriages 2 through 7 each had four outlets. Some passengers simply moved to the empty bunks there.

But as for the “comprehensive solution,” the only reply the passengers got was that the crew was “waiting for orders from higher up.”

A middle-aged woman started an argument with a crew member. She wanted to evacuate as soon as possible, but the conductor said everything was under control. The woman furiously reminded the crew that the rear carriages were already tilted. “Do we have to wait for a disaster to happen before we can get off?” she said.

“It was the fear of the unknown,” said 17-year-old high schooler Wang Fei, who was returning from a trip to the Wuyi Mountains, in southeast China’s Fujian province, with her classmates. They had booked the K31 as it would “get us home after a night’s sleep.”

The summer when Wang was six years old, she had gotten stranded on a train for three days on her way back to Luoyang from Jiuzhaigou. She had almost forgotten it until her mother reminded her how their tour guide at the time was crying. Now, Wang understood the fear behind that woman’s tears.

The passengers on the K31 still had no idea how long they would remain on the train. A high-speed train that left Zhengzhou at around the same time as them had already reached Luoyang safe and sound, despite running over an hour late.

Only one person out of Chen Mo’s party of five who had attended a concert in Zhengzhou had managed to get a ticket for the high-speed train. The others were split across three carriages on the K31, and now they were all stuck.

Like many other passengers, Chen began to recall the anomalies at the point of departure. The train left Zhengzhou 10 minutes late, which was very unusual. As early as July 18, a train into the city had stopped for an hour before pulling into the station “because a tree fell down,” Chen said.   

Some people worried about the weather. Chen met a fellow passenger who had checked the levels of nearby reservoirs before deciding to board the train. In fact, it was only a few hours after they boarded the train at Zhengzhou that the yellow alert for rainstorms escalated to orange, then to red­ — the highest level.

It wasn’t until around 2:30 p.m. on July 20, more than 21 hours after the train stopped, that a new announcement was made over the PA system. “Due to a change of the locomotive, there will be a temporary power outage in the carriages,” it said.

This was actually good news. According to the Zhengzhou Railway Bureau, some 15 trains that had left the city that day had to turn back later. The plan was to install a locomotive at the other end of the K31 and head back the way they had come.

When the power went out, so did the air conditioning in the dimly lit carriage. It got hot and stuffy, but also as calm as the train had been since it stopped. A mother in carriage 15 felt a little nauseous, but her “mood was extremely good,” she later said.

Half an hour passed. The electricity came back on, but the train did not budge. The PA system was silent again. Many passengers still had no idea why they were stuck, while some heard that a nearby bridge had collapsed and there was no way back to Zhengzhou.

At this juncture, at least four other trains under the jurisdiction of Zhengzhou Railway Bureau were stuck: the K736, K1304, K178 and K1143. Several trains operated by other bureaus were also stuck in Henan, some without water and electricity. Passengers started posting calls for help online. They urgently needed food, as supplies on board were insufficient.

Driven by Hunger

The K31’s food supplies were dwindling. At 10 a.m. on July 20, the passengers received their first meal: rice with the same side dishes as yesterday’s noodle soup — soaked vermicelli, seaweed, tofu skins and pickled long beans.

The dining car was packed. Chen, the concert-goer, was lucky — she managed to grab some rice before she was pinned back by the crowd. She held the rice above her head, helpless until she followed a middle-aged woman back to her seat. Chen’s white sneakers were trampled black, but felt admiration at her older companion’s fortitude. “She just said to everyone, ‘If we can’t get out, you can’t get in,’ and powered her way through,” Chen said.

The rice sold out quickly. Supplies were replenished for the first time­ — Chen saw eggs, onions and cabbages. These were purchased from nearby villages by the Mugou Station staff. But the food was a drop in the bucket for the K31’s over 900 passengers. The situation began to get out of control.

To get her daughter some food, a woman in her 30s stepped onto a stool, vaulted the chest-high serving bar, snatched a serving of rice and jumped out to pay. Luo Xiaoyong, a tall 13-year-old, pushed his way to the front of the crowd but was not served, despite the widely held principle in China to give priority to children and the elderly. Luo grabbed three meal boxes: one for himself and two for the two friends he’d made on the train, a young girl and her elderly uncle.

The handout drew even more protests. Some passengers railed against the uncontrolled rush, while others objected to the practice of distributing food on both sides of the dining car, which meant that people toward the back got next to nothing.

As a result, staff began selling instant noodles in carriage 17. Du brought two cups of seafood-flavored noodles back to her seat, having tried unsuccessfully to stop a burly man from cutting in front of her in the line.

Back in the dining car, a girl stood in line for three hours before she got to buy something from the fourth and final batch of food. The number of side dishes fell from three, to two and finally to one. The girl got some plain wheat noodles and two tomato slices, barely enough to replenish the energy she had lost from standing in line. “It was all gone in five mouthfuls,” she said.

But she was lucky. When Wang, the high school student, heard that rice was on sale, he and his friends ran over with plastic bags, only to hear that it was sold out before they even got halfway there.

The atmosphere on the train wasn’t completely dog-eat-dog. The girl next to Wang shared her hawthorn cake and potato chips with him, while a middle-aged woman gave him a sticky rice dumpling — her entire ration for the day. In the hard-seat carriages, a passenger who boarded at Fuzhou with a box of bananas meant for family and friends started selling them for 1 yuan each, but gave some away to children for free.

Amid the chaos, some people noticed the marked differences between passengers. Some were calm or even indifferent; when the cellphone signal dropped on the afternoon of July 20, they just nodded off to sleep. But others got increasingly agitated, converging on the dining car and shouting at staff to let them off the train, claiming their children and the elderly were “starving.”

The situation was going downhill. Some people only ate half a portion of rice for an entire day, while others got through the night on water and salted vegetables.

While this was going on, Zhengzhou was bearing the brunt of one of the worst rainstorms in living memory. People heading home after work were stuck on the subway — where some waded through waist-high water — or on the highways. Hospitals lost power, leaving doctors to supply oxygen to patients manually.

Those not on the K31 tried to reach their loved ones. Luo’s sister kept calling him, but could not get through. The mother of a 13-year-old boy traveling to visit his sister in Luoyang for the summer vacation with only 100 yuan in cash on him didn’t sleep a wink all night. A reporter helped her call the China Rail hotline to enquire about rescue plans, but there was no information to give her. 

By the evening of July 20, some passengers had had enough. At around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., someone smashed a window with an emergency glass breaker. Others in the soft-sleeper carriages, dining car and the hard-seat carriages followed suit. The train became a wind tunnel filled with the smell of earth mingled with rain.

Multiple passengers saw people try to leave the train. “I was famished by then, so I know that he tried to get out because of hunger,” said Luo, referring to a stout, middle-aged man from the next carriage who was the first to smash a window.

The commotion got louder. A maintenance crew quickly boarded up the smashed windows. Service personnel also rushed over to stop passengers from escaping. The conductor held the first person who broke the window back, saying: “You can’t jump off, it’s really dangerous outside.” Luo was under the impression that the service crew only managed to persuade the man back to his seat after securing him some food.

Meanwhile, many people online were searching for a female passenger who had called for help on the social media platform Weibo at around 10 a.m. but had not updated her status since.

More people began to notice the K31’s plight. By the late evening, news of the trapped train was Weibo’s top trending topic. It wasn’t until around 2 a.m. on July 21 that the cellphone signal was fully restored. When the passenger who had posted an SOS finally got online again, she was amazed to have received more than 1,000 private messages. She later said the kindness of these strangers had restored her faith in humanity.

Breakout

At 2:46 a.m., an announcement came over the PA system. This time it was a call for help. “A child in carriage 4 has a high fever. We request that any passengers with fever medicine come to carriage 4.”

The stricken child was a 16-month-old girl whose forehead had been burning since the afternoon and worsened in the evening, making her mother and aunt very anxious. But right after the broadcast, a middle-aged man brought them ibuprofen pills. As her mother fed the infant the medication, her daughter cried out for the first time in several hours.

But other passengers were showing signs of distress. Soon, another broadcast asked for medical assistance for an elderly man in carriage 10, who showing symptoms of low blood pressure and high blood sugar.

Nearly 40 hours had passed since the train had stopped and the stench in the carriages was getting unbearable. Cigarette smoke wafted over from the smoking room and mingled with the odors of unwashed feet, instant-noodle seasoning and the toilets. “The air felt suffocating,” said Li, of carriage 15. As the hot water supply dwindled in the early hours of the 21st, flushing the toilet after urinating was prohibited.

The only good news was that there was a little more food. For 3 yuan, passengers could buy a small bread roll and a bottle of water. Later came news that there was rice and “eight-treasure” rice porridge for sale in the dining car.

But even food only provided short-lived relief, and many passengers started plotting their escape. “If we don’t leave, we’ll be stuck on a train not going anywhere for the next four or five days,” one man said.

By dawn, the rain had let up a little. Those bold enough to take action smashed windows and started jumping out of the carriages. Li estimated that around 200 passengers in total left the train. Taller men first jumped out of the two-meter-high windows, then caught the women who followed them out.

Li decided to make a run for it when a 38-year-old man and 31-year-old woman next to him opted to leave. “I was simply starving,” he said. His mother followed him out.

Only when they reached higher ground did the escapees see the scale of the damage. A corner of the sky had cleared, illuminating hillsides slathered with yellow mud. Collapsed trees lay at awkward angles, their broken branches sticking out of the dirt. In the valley below, the K31 looked like a toy train thrown away by a child. From time to time, its former passengers scurried around it like ants.

One escape party of about 200 people followed the tracks until they were blocked from passing a landslide ahead by a maintenance crew. Another party headed to nearby Mugou, where soft mud stood about 10 meters high along parts of the road and both the water and the electricity were down. Li’s group of eight people lingered there for three to four hours, thinking they were going to get stuck again until a man drove them to a nearby town.

The escape parties filed into the villages steadily, like troops of soldiers. Many were treated with kindness by locals. One village official ordered residents to cook meat dumplings for the travelers, who listened as people told them how some nearby cave dwellings had collapsed and the official was helping rescue their inhabitants all through the night. Some former passengers tried to buy water in local stores, but the unreliable signal stopped them from making payments on their phones. The villagers generously said they could pay them later.

The outside world finally learned more accurate information about the K31 train later on July 21. The rail authorities transferred personnel from the nearby Shangjie Station, who braved the heavy rains and flooding to deliver a batch of supplies to the train by 5:30 a.m.

For the first time, supplies of water, instant noodles and ham sausages were evenly distributed to each carriage. When the bowls of noodles ran out, staff handed out packets instead.

Du — the newly jobless woman heading back to Luoyang — and Luo, the 13-year-old, remained onboard. At noon, more encouraging news came their way. The conductor went around noting the passengers’ destinations, a subtle hint that rescue vehicles were due to arrive soon. In the meantime, the rain had stopped. Some of the passengers’ families had driven over to pick people up, including the little girl with a high fever.

Those who had stayed until the end finally left the train at 2 p.m. On their way to Luoyang, police cars led the bus convoy of evacuees onto a highway that had been cordoned off but was reopened just for them.

The passengers who escaped found their own way home. Some hitched rides from cars leaving the villages, hopped off at a provincial highway and hitched again to the edge of the city of Gongyi, where there had been heavy rain but little flooding. Because of nearby landslides, many hotels were occupied by local villagers, but the former passengers managed to find vacant rooms.

At 8:30 p.m. on July 21, Luo finally got to see his sister again. She took him home and treated him to grilled cold noodle rolls, braised chicken rice, grass jelly bubble tea. Du got to see her mother, although she forewent the omelet in favor of some rice porridge and side dishes. She had planned to stay at home for a week before returning to Zhengzhou to continue her job search, but now intends to wait until the city has recovered from the floods.

(The names of all the people in this article have been changed.)
Translation: Chyn Lim