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Interview with Key Contributors

Interview with Lu Cheng Tsung, Commandant of the International Headquarters Search and Rescue (SAR), Taiwan

 
中華搜救總隊總隊長呂正宗表示,921大地震後李前總統的國際友人以及慈濟基金 會幫助中華搜救總隊增添了先進的儀器與裝備,加上當時從倒塌房屋找出生還者的經驗,都成了中華搜救總隊日後參與海外救災的重要助力。
 
 

The Most Serious Disaster SAR Taiwan Ever Experienced

When the big earthquake occurred in the wee hours of the morning on Sept. 21, 1999, it caused power cuts and telecommunications disruptions throughout Taiwan and woke many people from their sleep. Members of the International Headquarters SAR, Taiwan, on their own initiative, immediately checked the extent of the disaster in their respective areas and reported to headquarters. We had no communications problem because the headquarters had a radio network that ensured constant contact with its 97 units throughout the country.

Since unit commanders had full authority and all members had professional training in search and rescue and disaster assessment, our teams in central and southern Taiwan went to work immediately after they reported on the situation, trying to free people trapped under collapsed buildings.


President Lee Teng Hui has a group photo taken with 921 Earthquake rescuers when he visits the International Headquarters S.A.R., Taiwan. (Oct. 20, 1999 CNA)

But the SAR teams later called the headquarters for support when they realized that the scale of the disaster was much worse than they had thought. Personnel at the headquarters then switched on the generator to maintain radio communications and ordered an urgent nationwide mobilization at sunrise.

Some SAR teams, led by local members, had to take old foot trails to reach the disaster areas because roads and bridges had been destroyed in the quake.

At first, all the disaster areas seemed to be in a state of confusion because local governments, fire brigades, police departments and town halls had all suffered losses or damage of kind, and the homes of many public servants had collapsed. So we set up forward command posts at our Joint Operation Command Centers in northern, central, southern and eastern Taiwan to coordinate and direct the search and rescue efforts. Doctors, city and county authorities, civic groups and public sector agency personnel were among those who came to our command posts seeking information, cooperation or deployment of rescue teams.

Rescue Workers Driven by Appeals for Help

My most vivid recollections of our rescue missions are the cheers and applause by the local people when a trapped or injured survivor was removed from the rubble, and the happiness we felt. On the other hand, we felt very sorry for the children and parents who cried out loud when the rescuers found the body of a loved one. But this also drove us to try harder in our emergency rescue efforts.

Since we did not have advanced equipment at the time, some of our members who worked in the construction industry brought tools such as demolition hammers, and electric saws and drills to search and rescue sites. In smaller spaces, they worked like coal miners or moles, tunneling under the ground.

But we were worried that damaged buildings might collapse in the strong aftershocks and that our members might be trapped or even crushed to death, even though they were temporarily shoring up damaged beams and floors during the rescue work. Fortunately, only a few of our members were injured in the rescue missions.

Our teams were mobilized to carry out search and rescue missions around the clock for 15 consecutive days. Our motivation was the sight of the weeping children and parents who kept pleading with us to rescue their trapped family members. We kept their pleas in mind as we tried our best to rescue survivors as fast as possible. At times we were truly exhausted, but we struggled to keep working, telling ourselves “Hurry up! We have to find and save the trapped survivors.”

Valuable Experience Gained

The Taiwanese people, the International Headquarters SAR., Taiwan and other agencies learned important lessons from the 921 earthquake. SAR Taiwan in particular learned some valuable lessons from its experience in the 921 Earthquake and dealing with the big landslides thereafter. Since 21 countries and 48 foreign organizations came to Taiwan's assistance in the aftermath of the 921 Earthquake, we have been able to repay some of that debt. The search and rescue experience that we gained after the 921 earthquake enabled us to offer help when a temblor struck El Salvador, when a tsunami swept South Asia, when landslides caused damage in the Philippines and a major quake hit Indonesia. For example, we gained expertise in searching for and rescuing survivors trapped in collapsed buildings.

We have to thank former President Lee Teng-hui and Tzu Chi Foundation for their support. Mr. Lee asked his friends in Japan and other countries to provide us with some advanced instruments and equipment, and Tzu Chi gave us a few fire engines and ambulances when they leaned that the International Headquarters SAR, Taiwan needed more. These advanced instruments and equipment enabled us to assist other countries that were hit by disasters. However, we can only offer help through non-government organizations because Taiwan does not have diplomatic relations with many countries.

In retrospect, I think we would have done much better in our search and rescue efforts and could have saved more lives if we had more advanced instruments and equipment at the time of the 921 Earthquake. Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time.

When Typhoon Morakot swept through Taiwan on August 8, we knew from satellite images and field reports from southern Taiwan where the rain was heaviest and where the flooding had occurred. We rapidly mobilized our members in northern Taiwan for deployment in the south. We sent 80 life rafts to deliver food and other supplies to people stranded in Jiadung and Linbian townships in Pingtung County and ferried injured people and others who needed medical care out of the disaster areas.

One of our members, who served as the chief of Manasha Village, called the headquarters for support after torrential rain wreaked havoc in the mountainous southern Taiwan area. But after we reached Wulipu, we could go no further toward Manasha Village and were forced to reassign some members to help the Xinkai tribe in the heavily damaged township of Liouguei.

As volunteers, whenever we are called out on rescue missions, our regular jobs will definitely be affected and our family members will inevitably complain. But I think I have dealt with my problems in this regard and other SAR members will try to do the same so that our lives can be more worthwhile and meaningful. (2009-09-28)

 
 
 
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