It was 3:50 a.m. when Nevin Taber awoke in his room on the sixth floor of the Peking hotel. “The floor was shaking,” he remembers. “I leaped out of bed but found it hard to keep standing.” As Taber, a 37-year-old engineer from Binghamton, N.Y., struggled to get his wife, Annie, and her 11-year-old son, Ikie, out of the room, the electricity failed. From their window overlooking the darkened city, the Tabers could see the night sky rippling with flashes of light. “Fireworks!” yelled Ikie gleefully. But his devout Mormon parents had an eerie premonition. “Could this be it—the second coming of Jesus?” Taber recalls wondering. “It might seem incredible now, but in moments of panic all kinds of thoughts go through your mind.”
What the Tabers were witnessing was no supernatural visitation but short-circuiting transformers on utility poles all over Peking, caused by one of the most devastating earthquakes in Chinese history. Though Peking escaped the full force of the tremor that leveled the industrial city of Tangshan, 100 miles to the east, some 50 Chinese were killed in the Chinese capital, and tens of thousands fled their homes. Taber was sent to Manchuria by Westinghouse last March to help the Chinese assemble some electric trucks they had purchased, and he and his family were visiting Peking en route back to the U.S. They learned the full extent of the catastrophe only after leaving China the following day.
Taber recalls that even as their 900-room hotel was shaking, workers coolly reappeared at their stations and began leading guests down the stairs to the lobby. “Then the lights came back on,” says Taber, probably from emergency generators, “and the sight was hard to forget. There in the lobby was an assemblage of people from all over the world—all in various stages of undress. Some women had only robes on over their pajamas, and there were men with great mustaches walking around in nothing but their shorts.”
Remarkably, there was no sign of panic. “I never heard anyone scream,” says Taber. “My wife kept saying to me, ‘Nothing will happen, nothing will happen.’ She kept repeating that while the whole city was shaking violently. The first shock wave lasted for only a few minutes, actually, but to us it seemed an eternity.” Fearing the hotel might collapse, Taber led his family into the street. Later that morning, the Tabers hurried to Peking Airport by taxi along a road lined with Chinese afraid to stay inside. Walls had collapsed by the highway, and some houses appeared badly damaged.
Waiting to fly to Tokyo, the family was having breakfast in the airport when a second shock wave sent them rushing outside as plaster splashed down from the ceilings. Their flight was delayed for an hour. Once aloft, the Tabers heaved a sigh of relief, though Taber plans to return to China after a month at home. “These earthquakes are pretty scary,” concedes Taber, “but it’s a fantastic country.” The earthquake had a peculiar aftereffect on Annie Taber. Shopping in Tokyo’s Ginza a few days after leaving Peking, Mrs. Taber fell for no obvious reason. She suddenly had remembered the quake, she later explained to her husband, and her knees began to shake uncontrollably.