In the early morning hours (3:57 am local time) of Saturday, February 6, 2016, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck near the northern Kaohsiung City community of Meinong District. Although the quake was strong, the area surrounding Meinong did not sustain much damage. About 35 kilometers away in the Yong-kang Distict of Tainan City in Southern Taiwan, most people were asleep and ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday. The almost 2 million people of Tainan City were abruptly awakened by a massive earthquake that subsided in about 30 seconds. There was a brief aftershock. The quake was felt all over the island of Taiwan and as far away as Mainland China.
However, one community was shaken the hardest. It was in Yong-kang District of Tainan City, where the 17-story Wei-guan Golden Dragon building inexplicably collapsed. It was a large building with 4 floors of commercial space and 13 floors of residential apartments. The residents were mostly families and college students.
An English teacher who lived in down the street rushed to the devastated Wei-guan scene, because he had dropped off his two sons at the complex the night before. He arrived before the dust settled, and before the police and emergency crews arrived. He waited nervously for any signs of survivors. When rescuers arrived at the scene, his ex-wife was the first survivor to pulled out of the wreckage in front of the glare of television cameras. Her 10-day old baby did not survive the collapse, and her husband died trying to protect both of them. The teacher begged the rescue workers to keep searching the dangerous ruins of his ex-wife’s apartment, but to no avail, his two sons were not found.
This personal tragedy was just one of many that unfolded over the next 7 days, with many parents losing their children and some children losing their parents. One-hundred-sixteen people died and more than 500 people were hospitalized in Tainan City. People waited days on end as the rescue efforts were carried out meticulously around the clock by professional teams during the first 100 hours. Their anxiety turned to grief, as the critical time for survival passed, and Tainan City Mayor William Lai (賴清德) made the difficult decision to bulldoze the wreckage to find the bodies deeper in the ruins.
Trained rescue teams, including rescue dogs, military personnel, police, paramedics and medical teams manned stations around the disaster site, and coordinated their efforts very efficiently and professionally with the local authorities. Volunteers from Taiwanese organizations, especially the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, organized supplies and support services to the small army of rescue workers and victims’ families during the weeklong rescue operations. The Tzu Chi volunteers were the first ones to arrive on the scene to provide relief support, and the last ones to leave, cleaning the area, and recycling the waste. A wave of foreign and Taiwanese media descended on the area, and were treated to gracious hospitality by volunteers and local residents who opened up their homes to the visitors. It was noticeable that the disaster brought out the best in the people of the community.
On Friday, February 12th, mass funeral services were opened to help the community grieve for the 116 people who lost their lives in Tainan City. Family members, volunteers and officials joined the memorial service at the Mortuary Service Office in Tainan City in Jing-sing Hall. In attendance were Taiwan President Ma, Ying-jeou (馬英九), Taiwan President-elect Tsai, Ing-wen (蔡英文), Tainan City Mayor William Lai, and Kaohsiung City Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊). According to Taiwanese tradition, the souls of the deceased return home after seven days, so family members must provide them with food and blessings to take to heaven.
Survivors and the victims’ family members are picking up the pieces to rebuild their lives. Generous donations from Taiwan and other countries are making their way to Tainan City to make the process a little easier. However, for most families, no amount of money can replace what was lost during the Lunar New Year holiday of 2016. It will take time for the victims’ families to find closure, and they are still seeking answers to the cause of the collapse. Currently, the builders of the Wei-guan Golden Dragon building have been arrested while they are being investigated by Tainan City prosecutors for substandard construction practices. Also, it was discovered that a landlord tore down supporting walls and beams on the first few floors of the building to rent the space to a large electronics retail store.
Around Taiwan, people are seeking answers and trying to learn from the lessons provided by this disaster. Many living in high rises are anxious and feel uneasy about when and where the next earthquake will hit. More people may choose to avoid living in high rises in Taiwan, but in many cities, finding alternate housing my not be an option. The owner of a reputable construction company Tainan City provided several factors to consider when people want to make the safest choices for high rise apartments in Taiwan. First, choose to live in a building that was built after 1999, when the government’s building regulations were strengthened after the notorious 9/21 earthquake. Second, choose a building where there is not retail space on the lower floors.