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Stories of the Brave and the Perseverant

From victims to lifesavers, Taiwan rises from rubble of temblor


By Maubo Chang CNA Staff Writer

Two villages built by Buddhist Tsuchi Foundation were inaugurated. Tsuchi Foundation’s founder Dharma Master Cheng Yen gave out relief supplies to representative of 921 Earthquake victims.(Oct 31, 1999 CNA)

"Prior to the earthquake of Sept. 21, 1999, Taiwan didn't have a qualified rescue team. After the disaster, Taiwan began helping other countries with rescue operations, " said Hsiung Kuang-hua, chief of Taipei City's Fire Department.

Citing the Taipei City Urban Search and Rescue Team as an example, he said the team has gone on overseas missions many times in the last decade.

Hsiung was serving as chairman of the Fire Science Department at Central Police University in Guishan, Taoyuan County when the 921 quake took place and was instructed by the Executive Yuan to ask rescue teams in the United States to help with rescue operations in the disaster areas.

Twenty-seven foreign rescue teams from a dozen countries came to Taiwan's aid and competed against one another to be the one to save the most people, Hsiung recalled.

Among them, Hsiung was most impressed by the two rescue teams from the United Sates, which boasted state-of-the-art equipment and were well- organized.

"They flew in the day after the earthquake aboard a C-5B freight carrier and touched down at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport after the air force was hesitant about giving them access to the Chingchuankang air force base in Taichung, which was the nearest airport to the hardest-hit area," he noted.

"As soon as the plane had come to a halt on the tarmac, the two rescue teams emerged from the belly compartment in their trucks. All their leaders asked was: 'Where should we start? And with whom should we be in contact?'" said Hsiung.

The two teams asked for no support whatsoever from the Taiwanese authorities because they had brought with them everything they needed, from medicine, food, satellite communication equipment to long-wave locators.

Hsiung pointed out that the job of rescue teams is to rescue people trapped under debris, not to unearth bodies. Unfortunately, though, he went on, one American rescue team was surrounded by a mob of distraught people led by an elected local official in Douliu, Yunlin County, who, unaware of the purpose of the rescue team, demanded that they dig out bodies before leaving a collapsed building there to carry on the more important task of locating other trapped people elsewhere.

One year after that earthquake, the Taipei City Fire Department set up a rescue team later that month, using the city's budget and funds donated by people for the quake relief operation.

The team, patterned on the structure of the rescue teams under the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, has 56 firefighters, four ER doctors and four structural engineers.

That team has since expanded to 123 members and has taken part in rescue operations in El Salvador when it was rattled by a earthquake in 2001, in Iran when its historic city of Bam was leveled by an earthquake in 2003, Java in 2004 in the wake of a tsunami there, and Wenchuan, western China in 2008, also in the wake of a devastating earthquake.

The city's rescue team has also participated in many disaster rescue operations at home and is now considered one of the country's most experienced rescue teams.

Volunteer helped to deliver supplies in Guoshing, Nantou after the 921 Earthquake. (Sep 24, 1999 CNA)

Hsiung was quick to stress, however, that "there is no place for complacency and there is also room for our team to improve its skills and training to prepare for future demanding challenges."
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