Flipping on the news, he heard of the devastating earthquake that had struck near Chengdu, China, a sister city to Phoenix and an area Mr. Hernandez had called home for four weeks during the summer of 2006. Fearing for the people who had hosted him when he served as a Phoenix youth ambassador, he fired off e-mails to his Chinese brethren.
Hundreds of others who had traveled from Phoenix to Chengdu as part of sister city exchanges – from students and teachers to firefighters, police officers, and judges – awakened with the same reaction. They immediately reached out to their friends and counterparts in Sichuan Province's capital, a city of some 11 million people located 60 miles from the epicenter of Monday's earthquake. The confirmed death toll in the region reached 19,509 Thursday, and China said the number could rise to 50,000 once all the missing are accounted for.
Phoenix Sister City officials swung into action, setting up a Chengdu Earthquake Relief Fund to accept cash donations. They sent a group member to China on Wednesday to meet with counterparts in Chengdu and set up a bank account where the funds collected in Phoenix can be transferred to help the local population.
Most responses from Chengdu indicated that the Arizonans' friends and colleagues had survived, but some had harrowing tales about others in the area who did not fare so well. Moreover, many – from miles around – said they could feel the earth shudder for days afterward.
"What happened in Chengdu is more personal to the people in Phoenix," says Charlie Tsui, chairman of the Phoenix Sister Cities Chengdu Committee, which is part of Sister Cities International. "It's like they are family. We feel so sad, pain, that they are hurting so much."
Mr. Tsui's office is hearing that there isn't enough food, water, and other supplies. It will work with contacts in Chengdu to move money there as fast as possible, he says, and help nongovernmental organizations meet people's needs.
Phoenix and Chengdu became official sister cities in 1987. Since then, hundreds of cultural, social, educational, and economic exchanges have occurred and many friendships have been forged.
"It's a very beautiful, progressive city with lots of high-tech, a university, and wonderful people," says Paula West, executive director of the Phoenix Sister Cities Commission, who has visited several times. "It's modern but at the same time retains its traditional flavor. And it's the panda capital of the world!"
Decker Williams, deputy chief of the Phoenix Fire Department, first visited Chengdu in 1998 and has returned several times. He was struck by two things, he says. The first was amazement, after experiencing anti-Americanism in other parts of the world, over how well the Chinese treated their US visitors. The second was the resourcefulness of Chengdu's firefighters. Upon responding to a call from a woman who had locked herself out of a sixth-floor apartment, "one of these Chinese firefighters goes over, grabs hold of a pipe that runs up the building, and shimmies his way up to the sixth floor, climbs onto her balcony, and got into her apartment to let her in."
That gives him solace now, he adds. He knows how resourceful the local people are and that they will do all they can to help their compatriots.
Hernandez, the former student ambassador, has fond memories of Chengdu. "It reminds me of Phoenix on steroids," he says. He is sending e-mails to groups he belonged to in high school and using Facebook to reconnect with friends from the youth ambassador program – anything to get the word out so they can help.