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Former Army Commander-in-Chief Chen Chen-hsiang


Army troops started rescue half an hour after quake struck

A ranking commander's primary duty is to prepare his troops for combat. When I was commander-in-chief, I trained the Army units to be ready for emergencies, mobilization and combat, in that order. Emergency-readiness means that army units should be able to respond swiftly to human or natural disasters.

After learning that the 921 Earthquake had caused serious damage and casualties, I immediately ordered Army units into the disaster areas to begin rescue operations, and I went to the Army headquarters. The first unit arrived at the disaster scene about 15 minutes after the huge earthquake struck.

As the units began reporting back to headquarters one after another on the scenes they were witnessing, I gave instructions for our Combat Information Center to be set up as a rescue center.

President Lee Teng-hui awarded Army Commander-in-Chief Chen Chen-hsiang (second from left) as well as other officers and soldiers for their great contributions to the rescue after the 921 Earthquake struck Taiwan. (Dec. 1, 1999 CNA)

Based on the assessment that a major disaster had occurred, the Army units were required to join the rescue efforts, at the command of the Army Headquarters.

Since many local governments, such as those in Nantou townships and villages, were crippled by the earthquake, the military had to take command of the rescue work.

I flew to Nantou in an Army helicopter at daybreak. I was shocked when I saw Puli, Kuohsing and other disaster areas from the helicopter. Roads and bridges had collapsed and the local governments were paralyzed, as almost all their buildings had been destroyed.

To coordinate the rescue work, I divided Nantou and Taichung into 18 areas and designated Taipei City and County as separate subdivisions. Army divisions and brigade commanders were assigned to supervise and direct the rescue missions in each area or subdivision.

Army soldiers searching in Tongshih, Taichung County for potential survivors in houses destroyed by the 921 Earthquake. (Sept. 23, 1999 CNA)

Army engineers were mobilized to assemble the prefabricated housing units Japan donated to Taiwan for 921 Earthquake survivors. (Oct. 9, 1999 CNA)

Rushing to the rescue just as in combat

After a disaster strikes, the chances of survival are highest within the so-called golden 72 hours, therefore, more lives could be saved if rescue workers rush to the scene without delay. I urged the troops to race against time, otherwise their rescue missions would fail.

When I decided to take command in central Taiwan, I brought along financial and legal consultants and prepared to make video recordings and other documentation of what we were going to do. Because I took these precautions, none of the Army commanders, including me, faced any legal challenges after the rescue missions.

For instance, not all damaged buildings were totally destroyed. Although they were under time pressure, our troops photographed each of those buildings to show their actual condition and obtained legal documents so that the owners could make damage claims later on.

When donations of money, clothes and other items started flowing in, the Army sorted them and sent them to the local governments. We later published a report titled "The 921 Earthquake in Facts," which detailed the preparations the Army made at the beginning, its comprehensive collection of relevant data, recordings of the troops’ efforts, the local governments’ input, and the directions and support from the central government.

Victims grateful to troops who sweated and bled

The troops sweated and bled during the rescue operations, but the respect they were accorded and the preferential treatment they received everywhere they went was enough to make their sacrifice worthwhile. They were proud of themselves.

The military service of some soldiers was scheduled to end on the day of the 921 Earthquake. After the earthquake, others received bad news about their relatives, but they all chose to stay on until the rescue work was completed.

Many civilian truck drivers and heavy machinery operators joined the rescue effort as volunteers, which led me to believe that as long as we are united and can exert our national defense capability, we can overcome any disaster, no matter how bad it may be.

In my opinion, our troops performed better than their counterparts in other countries that suffered similar disasters. Compared with the response after Japan's Kobe earthquake in 1995 and China's Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, our military made appropriate decisions, launched the rescue operations swiftly, and executed their missions thoroughly and efficiently.

Learning from post-disaster recovery experience

The post-disaster recovery work was carried out jointly by the military and local governments. After the homeless were given temporary shelter, the Army started assembling prefabricated housing units so that these survivors could settle down and work. At the same time, we began the process of identifying collapsed buildings and removing the rubble to environmentally friendly dump sites to clear the way for reconstruction. We also sanitized the disaster areas to prevent epidemic outbreaks.

The Cabinet thoroughly reviewed the 921 Earthquake post-disaster rescue, relief and recovery efforts and adopted some measures to ensure that government agencies would respond more efficiently to any future disasters. For example, the Central Emergency Operation Center, which was established soon after the quake, has since dealt with many emergencies swiftly.

Still, there is room for improvement in our handling of natural disasters that strike without warning. When such disasters occur, it would be better if government agencies could respond early, quickly and with authority. Military commanders, local government heads and Cabinet ministers have to rush to the scene and take quick action to minimize damage and casualties. It is extremely dangerous to wait passively for instructions from higher up.

The military proved to be responsible, united and selfless

As a soldier at the Military Academy, I learned to foster the Whampoa spirit of being responsible, united and self-sacrificing. Judging from the actions of the military, government agencies and the Taiwanese people during the rescue efforts, this spirit was in full play. If we continue to work like this, there will be no difficulties we would not be able to overcome in the future.

The key difference between Taiwan and Japan or China in their responses to major earthquakes is the speed of the decision-making process and the level of public involvement. The Japanese began rescue operations only after receiving orders to do so. The mainland Chinese got involved in the efforts only after Premier Wen Jiabao appeared at the disaster site and gave a speech. However, in Taiwan, we responded immediately to the 921 Earthquake. We did not ostentatiously give orders, but we were well prepared for an emergency of that kind. In other words, what we did was "fight according to plan," while Japan and China seemed to be "fighting according to the situation."

The Ministry of National Defense, the Interior Ministry and the firefighting brigades are the downstream agencies responsible for rescue during a disaster. I believe that some problems should be addressed upstream, in the review of post-disaster recovery. For instance, it is known that in Taiwan there are dangerous bridges and roads that are vulnerable to landslides. The government should inspect them regularly, and try to solve the problems before a disaster occurs.

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