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Eyewitness report of the earthquake relief efforts

Nantou, 25 September 1999

By Linda Gail Arrigo, with the Presbyterian Church's Tainan Theological Seminary Rescue Mission in Chung-Liao Township.

An earthquake of magnitude 7.3-7.6 struck Taiwan in the early hours of September 21, 1:47 AM to be precise. The epicenter was close to Sun-Moon Lake, in the mountains of central Taiwan, at a small town called Chi-Chi. However, the tremors cut a swath of serious destruction about 50 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide through heavily populated areas and towns of western central Taiwan. And a few poorly-constructed modern twelve-story buildings toppled over as far away as the metropolitan area of Taipei, the capital city, 150 kilometers to the north.

Four days after the quake, and following aftershocks up to magnitude 6.8, over 2000 are confirmed dead, 4500 are injured, some 2200 or more are believed to be still buried in the rubble with little hope of survival, and 300 have been reported as missing. However, it is doubtful whether these national figures yet include reports from small clusters of houses high in the mountains, many of which have been cut off from road and telephone communication, or in some cases even totally obliterated under landslides. The total scope of this natural disaster is only now coming to national view.

The perspective of this report, however, is from one of the small towns in one of the regions hardest hit, Chung-Liao Township to the east of Nantou City, an area of steeply rolling hills crisscrossed with small rivers and planted with bamboo, oranges, bananas, longan, and betel nut palms. This is a richly green, semi-tropical landscape. The general prosperity of Taiwan is seen here in clusters of new tile-faced four-story residences and shop fronts, built in rows or interspersed with the older two-story cement buildings and brick or earthern-walled farmhouses--even though Chung-Liao is one of the poorer areas of the country. Since the 1980's Taiwan's farm households have generally received more income from industrial work and remittances sent from children in the cities, than from selling their agricultural produce; and this income has given them a style of life somewhat below that of Taiwan urban dwellers, but still high by the standards of most of Asia.

The good life is now a shattered dream for the estimated 100,000 residents of Nantou County who are homeless since the rude shock of the night of September 21. The spacious four-story residences suddenly became deathtraps. Typically, the first story support columns buckled and lurched, leaving the upper stories to fall to the ground at a horizontal offset of ten to fifteen feet, a drop sometimes flattening the second floor as well.

Most of those who were trapped alive in these collapsed buildings scrambled out or were dug out by relatives and neighbors in the first few hours after the quake. Roads into Nantou were cut by landslides. Official national and international rescue teams and heavy equipment converged rather on the toppled high rises in metropolitan areas, where more lives were at stake and yet were accessible in upper stories. Finally reaching Nantou nearly three days after the earthquake struck, they found no signs of life that were detectable by heat sensors or dogs, and left. At this point 800 bodies have been recovered in Nantou County, and at least 120 are reported to remain under buildings where they cannot be easily extricated.

Nearly total destruction was the case in Yung Ping Town, the population center of Chung-Liao Township, where there lived 1,000-some residents in rows of four-story buildings lining four main streets. Three-quarters of these buildings collapsed, leaving the tail ends of cars parked in first-floor garages sticking up below the third floors, nearly at street level. Over a hundred residents died within a few seconds. In surrounding population clusters with fewer areas of densely-packed apartments and shops, fewer died, perhaps partly because they had more escape routes.

This was the case at a small village of two- and three-story residences, about three kilometers from Yung Ping. Although almost all the buildings can now no longer be safely inhabited, only five out of a few hundred died. As the Tsai family explained as they picked their way around tumbled furniture and over the chunks of floor tiles that jutted up a foot or more, "After the first shock the doors were stuck in crooked frames, and you could hardly get out. Most of those who died were caught when the second big shock hit a minute later." Fortunately their second floor and stairs did not fall in, as at other houses on the street.

In the lane on the other side of the Tsai's former home, their middle-aged aunt sat dejectedly in a rattan chair in a vigil over three coffins—her husband and two of her four children. She found it hard to talk, but her daughter calmly filled in the details. "My mother was working the night shift at a factory, and I had another job that night, and my brother was living in the school dormitory. The factory shut down after the earthquake, and my mother walked home in the dark. When she saw the house she knew there was no hope for them." Her natal family allowed her to bring the bodies back to their house, even though Taiwanese consider contact with dead bodies highly inauspicious.

Just beyond the Tsais' house and the coffins, there is a small piece of flat land planted with betel nut palms bordering the narrow road. Three families camped there with colorful tents and salvaged chairs. The tents were new, the gift of relief groups; boxes of ready-made foods, bottles of spring water, and disposable paper goods stood among the palms as well. As one head of family explained, they appreciated all the people, private citizens, who had driven through and provided for their immediate needs. But they knew they had lost nearly all they had, and life would not be easy; he could only think of what to do for the next few days, and it would be useless to make plans further into the future.

A ways down the road there were small distribution centers for used clothing, blankets, and sleeping bags, nearly all in very good condition and plentiful; and as at Yung Ping families could be seen picking the donated goods over to see what they could use. They would be able to stay warm enough, if they could stay dry.

By the fourth day after the earthquake, a vast mobilization of aid from throughout the island can be seen in all the devastated areas where roads were again passable. A thousand volunteers of the Tzu Chi Buddhist Charitable Association had arrived by the second day to manage distribution and to comfort the survivors. Caravans of small vans and land rovers, marked with the emblems of major religious and civic organizations, and the names of citizens' associations from all parts of Taiwan, thread their way through the countryside.

The traffic snarls where the damaged roads are partially blocked by debris. Most relief convoys carry boxes of consumer necessities, but a few have even brought electricity generators, backhoes mounted on trucks, water supply tanks, and other heavy equipment. According to the Nantou County government, 50,000 people have participated in relief efforts; and the use of over 40 backhoes and large trucks has been donated by the local governments of other counties.

In addition to this rapid outpouring of private and local aid, effective even if not fully centrally coordinated, the national government has mobilized the army. The army has dispatched its helicopters to carry out the injured and drop food to isolated mountain villages. It has set up water sources and supply depots for the tent towns of displaced residents camped in schoolyards and temple plazas. The recruits have directed traffic, excavated rubble, and performed the distasteful task of carrying bodies wrapped in quilts and yellow coverlets with standardized Buddhist insignia, a sad trip from the mortuary to the funeral home.

The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan has set up four stations for relief goods distribution and light medical care within the area of devastation. The relief station of the Presbyterian Church in Chung-Liao Township, set up in a quiet rural setting at the Kuang Fu Primary School, is an example of this civilian mobilization, as well as of harmonious cooperation between Buddhists and Christians.

The relief effort has been spearheaded by the Tainan Theological Seminary, nearly three hours' drive away. The first day after the earthquake they sent emissaries to size up the extent of the disaster. Liaison was aided by the 15 Presbyterian congregations in Nantou County, especially in the mountainous areas populated with indigenous (Austronesian) peoples.

In the days since, the students of the seminary have been mobilized to establish temporary supplies of water and electricity and put together the support facilities for local displaced residents and visiting relief personnel, such as tarp covers, tents, open-air kitchens, portable toilets, telephone lines, tables and chairs, and even computers.

On day three some sixty students arrived to unload caravans, organize the supplies, and prepare to distribute relief goods to more remote areas. Part of their activities were designed to stimulate community cooperation among the 37 families camped in the school compound, leading them to form their own governing committee and represent their needs to the local government.

This relief effort for the Great Earthquake of September 21 is a central event in the life of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, which coordinates the efforts of congregations throughout the country through its Taipei headquarters near National Taiwan University.

Although Christians are only 5% of the population of Taiwan, they have often played a leading role in its history. The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan was established more than one hundred years ago, and it founded the earliest modern schools and medical facilities. It is the largest Christian denomination in Taiwan. It is the only democratic self-governing organization that managed to survive forty years of martial law on Taiwan, 1947 to 1987. It stood up to the Chiang regime with open statements on human rights and national self-determination, in the dark days of 1971 and 1977. Although only a small percent of the population, these Christians who have made witness to social justice and to humanitarian principles have been a leading element in Taiwan's development.

As the task of immediate rescue for the victims moves towards completion, larger questions loom. How can Nantou and Taichung Counties, the areas hardest hit, recover from this devastation? Over a hundred primary schools, half the total in Nantou, have been destroyed. The same is true for much of the governmental infrastructure, including local police and administration offices.

Most roads and bridges have been restored to barely-passable condition, but they may well collapse further in the next tropical storm, one of which is expected to pass by within a few days. Thousands of formerly productive citizens now live in tents near their homes, on the edge of roads and rice paddies in the countryside, or in vacant lots and parking lots in city areas. It is fortuitous that the weather has been dry for the last few days. It may be expected that, as usual, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan will be active in proposing measures and policies to the national government.

One of the issues that has been exposed by the present disaster is the uneven quality of government infrastructure, inspections, and contingency plans. On the part of the army, an organization supposed to be ready for quick action, the resources committed to immediate relief were insufficient.

Careless design and construction probably contributed to the collapse of some of the road system. Kuang Fu Primary School, the site of the Presbyterian Church relief station in Chung-Liao, provides an illustration of the poor quality of government-contracted construction. The supports that buckled show porous, poorly-set concrete that results from skimping on materials and labor, and the steel reinforcing bar is clearly below standard.

The impunity of construction companies in Taiwan is even more glaring in the case of one of the twelve-story high rises that toppled over: the basic support structure was found to be not made of steel at all, but of institutional-size mayonnaise tins strung together and filled and covered with a shell of cement, to look like large support pillars. The further question is how such a building could have passed inspection by the authorities.

The matter of integrity of the national government is inextricably tied to commitment to the long-term sustainability of Taiwan. The present government still claims the name of the Republic of China, and although President Lee Teng-hui has as of July 9 proclaimed that the Republic of China is a sovereign state in equal relations with the People's Republic of China (generally recognized as "China" by the United Nations and almost all of the world), the ruling party has stepped back from changing the Constitution and the administrative structure to reflect this. It would seem that, fifty years after losing the civil war in China, the ruling Kuomintang should be able to face reality.

The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan has long advocated a clear declaration of the independence of Taiwan, most recently with the "Say No to China, Say Yes to Taiwan" campaign that culminated with a rally of 60,000 on June 28, 1997.

If any small comfort can be found in this terrible disaster that has claimed the lives of so many Taiwanese, it is that the high level of spontaneous civilian response experienced here brings hope--that the people of Taiwan may finally be able to join together to meet the imminent challenges of their national destiny.


As of September 25, 1999, the fifth day after the earthquake, the national government of Taiwan, a.k.a. the Republic of China, has declared a state of emergency; and that it will now take over directing the relief efforts.

As of September 26, the confirmed death toll still stands at a little over 2,000, even though the number "still trapped" and unlikely to be alive has fallen to 48 in Nantou and to a few hundred nation-wide. Overall the death count has been revised down after comparing names and finding substantial duplication of reporting from local sources and centralized administration, such as at the mortuaries.

Linda Gail Arrigo is International Affairs Officer of Green Party Taiwan and has had long contact with the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan. Tel: 8862-2217-4063, Fax: 8862-2217-4044, e-mail:, The present report is being circulated in advance by Linda. The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan may review it and circulate it soon.