by Ritchie B. Tongo
On the night of February 5, I was preparing my bag for a trip the next morning to pick up an accrediation pass. I set my alarm for 4:00 A.M. and did my usual routine when waking up: check my e-mails. I received one from my colleague David Chang informing me that an earthquake had just hit Tainan, southern Taiwan, at around 3:57 A.M. I got another one from a friend with a photo showing a collapsed building with a lot of casualties, also in that area. Since the earthquake happened very early and most people were asleep, the extent of damage it resulted in was still unknown. This prompted me to change my plan for the day, and immediately left for Tainan to see the situation personally. My first option was to travel by train or airplane but the services were not operational due to possible aftershocks. So I decided to take a cab, my third option, even if Tainan is four (4) hours away from where I was, Taipei. I was there by 10:00 A.M.
In Tainan, men in uniforms and civilians worked together rescuing those trapped in the collapsed 17-storey apartment building. According to news reports, it was the only high-rise building that had toppled as a result of the earthquake. Taiwan government has strict building standards which is the reason why not many structures were damaged.
That rescuers found survivors could be inferred by people suddenly becoming noisy and in a hurry. On the other hand, retrieved bodies were placed in body bags. The rescue and retrieval operations continued until morning the following day because “it took one hour to complete a search for just one household and two hours just to go forward”, said a rescuer. As for me, I decided to stay in an area near the rescuers’ command post thinking that if there would be aftershocks, I could easily respond.
The next morning which was February 7, people were queuing to fill their containers with water. Others were waiting for updates and news if their relatives were rescued. This disaster caused a major heartache especially to the Chinese community since the Chinese New Year, a time where they were supposed to feast and be merry, was to be celebrated on February 8. Although the general atmosphere was gloomy, the Taiwanese people started moving forward facing reality and having a positive outlook. Some men and women gave bottled drinking water and food to other people while others went to temple to pray.
Experiencing a calamity such as this is a very difficult situation to be in. Especially in the case of earthquakes, scientists still cannot predict the precise time when they will occur. Looking at the brighter side, however, I witnessed how disasters can make strangers come closer together like families and I have seen this in Tainan. People did what they could to help; I saw men digging in rubbles and women handing out food and water. They did their share to help right away without putting themselves and their family’s safety first.