Two Americans Are Buried a Year After a Train Crash in China
By Marc Santora and Jeffrey E. Singer | The New York Times
September 01, 2012
A year ago, Cao Erxing and his wife, Chen Zengrong, both 56, were killed in a high-speed train crash in China. But it was not until Saturday that their relatives in New York City were finally able to gather to mourn their loss and bury their loved ones.
And though the accident was in 2011, the pain was fresh at the memorial service for the couple in Elmhurst, Queens.
"They are gone, they are gone," one relative cried. "We will never see them again."
The memorial and burial service seemed to offer some dignity in an ordeal that began with one of the biggest rail disasters in China's history, which left 40 people dead and 191 passengers injured in July 2011.
The accident rattled the Chinese government and raised questions about the safety of the nation's high-speed rail system, an ambitious public-works project that has been used as a symbol of China's emergence as a global power.
Yet for the Cao family, the accident was only the beginning of the tragedy.
For more than a year, the Cao sons -- Henry, who was severely injured in the crash, and Leo -- have been caught up in a confusing and often maddening bureaucratic nightmare. They have raised questions about their mother's treatment immediately after the accident, and fought government officials for adequate compensation and to bring their parents' bodies home.
"I don't want them to go down in history as just anonymous Americans who died," Leo Cao said. "I want people to know these people lived. Their lives meant something."
Cao Erxing and his wife left their home in Fujian Province for New York in the 1980s. For the couple, equipped with only middle school educations and no English skills, life was a struggle from the start.
Mr. Cao worked as a dishwasher but was felled by mental illness. To support the family, his wife took a job as a seamstress, working grueling hours for little pay.
With their parents, who were naturalized American citizens, doing all they could to scrape by, the Cao brothers were often left on their own.
Still, Leo said, he was able to enroll at Stony Brook University when he was 16 and graduated when he was 19.
His brother, Henry, was also forging ahead in his career in the import business.
The family worked hard and was eventually able to buy a house in Queens.
The trip to China was the first vacation that the parents ever took, their first chance to return to their birthplace and reconnect with relatives they had not seen in years, their family said.
But what was supposed to be a joyous occasion turned to disaster when the train in which they were riding rear-ended another train in the eastern city of Wenzhou, sending several cars careering off the tracks and plummeting off an overpass.
Henry, who was traveling with his parents, had to have his spleen and a kidney removed as a result of his injuries, which also included a broken ankle and ribs.
"I can't keep going on like before," he said. "Before the crash, I used to play with my children often. No more."
While Henry recovered, Leo began to wage what turned out to be a lengthy battle with the Chinese authorities.
Immediately after the accident, victims' families were warned against holding public memorials. The Cao family wanted to hold a ceremony in its ancestral village, but the authorities forbade it. Instead, the family had to settle for a ceremony in the city where the crash took place.
But it was not until 150 friends and family members gathered at the Gerard Neufeld Funeral Home in Elmhurst on Saturday that they could mourn properly. Last month, the brothers went to China to collect the remains.
Many of the relatives in America were able to come here with the assistance of the Cao family, and many were inconsolable in their grief.
While the brothers' struggle with the Chinese government has garnered wide attention, the comments at the service were focused on the moment: paying tribute to the dead and offering blessings.
"It's been a very bad year," Leo said after the service. "The reason we need to get this over with is for my family, my brother."
Still, he said, he anticipated more fighting with Chinese officials over compensation claims.
"My brother, his family, my parents, we lost so much," he said. "We can't just lay down."
But Henry said, "I just try and forget."