Ding Zhijian, a 34-year-old editor at a children’s literature publishing company, was on his way home after meeting a colleague when a horrific rainstorm hit Beijing.
Earlier that day, his wife had asked Ding not to leave the house. It was the weekend, after all, and rain had already started to fall.
But Ding insisted the meeting would be short and that he’d be home in time for dinner.
After the meeting, Ding drove through a downpour that showed no signs of stopping. Sewers backed up, streets flooded and suddenly Ding found himself trapped inside his SUV in several meters of waters inundating a low-lying underpass near a central Beijing canal.
Officials say Ding was one of seventy-seven people who died in what’s been called the heaviest rainstorm to hit the city in sixty-one years. Streets were turned into rivers and intersections into lakes as Beijing’s drainage system was overwhelmed by up to 225 millimeters of precipitation falling over a sixteen-hour period.
Cars stalled as drivers unfamiliar with flood conditions tried to plow through rising waters. Thousands were stranded at the city’s airport after more than 500 outbound flights were canceled. Buildings collapsed in a mudslide and a police officer was electrocuted.
Ding was driving in the Guangqumen area, where during storms rainwater is directed through a drainage system westward to a pumping station and into a holding pond. But the system could not handle the volume, and water overwhelmed his car.
Critics after the fatal flooding complained that Beijing’s sewer system, built decades ago when the city was much smaller, desperately needs an overhaul. More than 90 percent of Beijing pumping stations can handle no more than 30 millimeters of precipitation per hour, a rate critics say is too low for a mega-city, said Zheng Jiang, deputy manager of the Beijing Drainage Group.
“The July 21 rainfall exceeded the capacity of the Beijing drainage facilities,” he said.
By 7 p.m., more than a dozen drain intakes near Guangqumen were completely submerged. Some were spouting water. The pumping station was overwhelmed, and the canal overflowed.
“All of a sudden, the water arrived,” said a flower merchant near Guangqumen. “Like sea waves.”
Ding was trapped. Water pressure kept him from opening a door or window. He desperately phoned his wife and told her his location.
Ding’s wife told Caixin that she and her husband frantically and persistently tried calling Beijing’s emergency services hotline. But the lines were busy.
Twenty minutes after his first call, Ding dialed his wife again, crying. He said there wasn’t enough oxygen in the car. “Hurry,” she remembers him saying. “Save me.”
She grabbed a hammer and raced to Guangqumen. By the time she arrived, the flooded area had been sealed off by police.
The wife says she begged police officers to jump into the water and try rescuing her husband, but they refused, saying that was a job for firefighters. Police declined comment.
Firefighters later arrived but did nothing, Ding’s wife said, even though she told them about her husband’s plight. One passer-by jumped into the water in search of the SUV, but had to turn back because of the strong waves.
Two hours later, Ding’s car was the last of five cars pulled from the underpass. The other cars were empty. An autopsy found injuries on Ding’s hands and skull, presumably inflicted when he tried to break the car’s glass.
Three traffic cameras operate in the area where the road flooded, but traffic police said the cameras were not working that night.
Beijing authorities at first said thirty-seven people died and nearly 60,000 were forced from their homes due to the storm. They later revised the death toll, setting it at seventy-seven as of Friday. Officials estimated total economic damage from the storm at 10 billion yuan.
In the days that followed, Beijing government officials came under intense public pressure. They were urged to re-evaluate the city’s emergency response protocol and urban drainage system. The Beijing meteorological bureau was faulted for failing to issue a code orange alert, the second-highest level of the city’s four-tier warning system, until 6:30 p.m.
Central areas of the city quickly returned to normal, but areas in the suburbs and rural outskirts affected by the storm, such as the Fangshan district in the southwest, faced enormous clean-ups.
A funeral for Ding was held Wednesday morning. Dozens of relatives and friends crowded a square in front of the Babaoshan funeral home. He left behind a three-year-old daughter who starts kindergarten in the fall.
An eyewitness remembers seeing Ding’s wife standing by the rushing water that inundated her husband’s car that night, screaming over and over, “Ding Zhijian, I’ve come to save you!” in hopes he would hear her voice. Her voice, however, was lost in the sound of torrential rain.
Xu Chao is a Caixin staff reporter. Huang Kaiqian is an intern reporter and Lilian Rogers an intern researcher at Caixin.