Scant weeks after a devastating earthquake rocked Sichuan province in China on 12 May 2008, the above tale began landing in inboxes. In September 2011, the online-circulated account was updated to relocate the tale to Japan and reference by inference the horrific quake that rocked the eastern part of that island nation on 11 March 2011.
The Japan version was often accompanied by a photo of four men in orange and black camo rescue gear uncovering two bodies entwined together in a pit. While that photo was real (it showed the fire brigade from Li Huili County, Xinqiao Town, China digging out the remains of two people on 31 August 2008), it had nothing to do with the "touching text message left for the baby that survived" tale, in that both people were dead, neither was a baby, and no cell phones were involved.
At first blush, the story of a mother's sacrifice of herself to shield her three-month-old child and the touching message left as a text message on her cell phone would appear to hold water. The tale was reported by Xinhua - People's Daily on 17 May 2011 as part of an article about survivor stories. In Beichuan, the region hit hardest by the quake, rescue workers who reached through a small gap in a collapsed building ascertained the woman they'd seen crouched in there was dead and moved on, but something caused one of them to return. A second feel-around into that gap revealed there was an infant sheltered underneath the woman, and after much digging the unharmed baby was pulled from the wreckage. Within the blanket he was found upon was a cell phone displaying the message "Dear baby, if you can live, always remember I love you."
Said article was accompanied by a photo of a soldier bearing in his arms a sleeping, unharmed child of approximately the right age. While the photo does not display any ruins of buildings, let alone a cell phone with a heart-tugging text message on it (the setting is instead a lush green mountain path, with nary a building in sight), the soldier had clearly been involved in rescue efforts of some sort, as evidenced by the blue mesh mask still hanging from his ears yet pulled down off his face.
While all that would seem authoritative, it must be remembered that Chinese newspapers are not quite bastions of veracity. Nothing (at least at this point) has surfaced to confirm the tale, such as the cell phone itself. Moreover, would a woman dying of her injuries be able to find, let alone use, a cell phone amid the wreckage of a building that suddenly came down upon her? As she continued to try to hold the weight of the debris off her child? Which she was attempting to do by bracing both her arms against the ground so as to create a protective space underneath her for the baby, and using a cell phone even one-handed would have risked the child's life because just a smallish shift in position could have caused a further catastrophic collapse?
Some children were rescued from the wreckage of fallen buildings in Beichuan, but hundreds of other young people were permanently entombed there. That an unharmed baby was found either in or around the resulting debris isn't remarkable, but an unconfirmed tale of a mother's knowing self-sacrifice on behalf of her child is more the stuff of legend than of actual news story. Legends of selfless sacrifice and miraculous survival are common in the wake of great tragedies, as people who are living through those horrifying times look for something — anything — of a positive nature to cling to.
That same Xinhua piece told another such tale, but about a teacher rather than a mother. Four students were supposedly rescued unharmed from under a desk in a collapsed school, their survival the result of their middle-aged male teacher's having herded them under it then thrown himself across it to use his body to reduce the pressure of the concrete ceiling smashing onto the desk.
An animal version of the "mother gives her life to save her child" legend, long since debunked, features a bird who sacrifices herself in a forest fire to protect her young.