Quake of the Century

Remembering Taiwan’s Deadly Earthquake of 1999

September 20, 1999 was just a normal day in Taipei, Taiwan. The school year had just begun less than a month prior. I was a second-grader at Shipai Elementary; Karl, my brother, went to Mingde Junior High in the next district over. Typhoon Bart had been fast approaching from the Pacific but suddenly changed its course and headed toward Japan, carrying with it any hopes of a typhoon holiday.

Natural disasters served one purpose only — to exempt us from having to go to school. It was a huge bonus if power went out; we’d also be exempted from studying, because Mom would never let us read in the dark — says it’s bad for our eyes. There really wouldn’t be much else to do, because we’d all be trapped in. We usually would just walk around and admire all the glow-in-the-dark toys we had accumulated over the years, praising their beauty and practicality. (Putting one in a paper cup produces a makeshift flashlight.) Karl and I might have fired rubber bands at each other. I might have whined about being bored. Of course, none of this happened on that day, because Bart never came. It was just a normal, hot, and humid day.

Later that night, as I — and most everyone else on the island — drifted into deep sleep, a strong and sustained tremor woke us all up. I went to my parents’ room. It was almost 2 a.m. There was an aftershock a few minutes later. Then another one. Then another. I remember feeling like we needed to do something. In class they taught us to hide under our desks or run to an open field. Mom said go back to sleep.

Destroyed highway in central Taiwan

We woke up a few hours later to news of 1) no power and 2) no school. The “921 earthquake” was a magnitude-7.7 earthquake. The epicenter was just 20 miles south of the geographic center of Taiwan and within 100 miles of Taipei City. In total, we’d find out later, it claimed over 2,400 lives and destroyed or damaged over 100,000 homes. It was Taiwan’s second deadliest earthquake in recorded history, the quake of the century. Aftershocks continued for weeks, a few even exceeding magnitude-6.

For many in northern Taiwan, it was hard — but not impossible (e.g., a 12-story building in Taipei collapsed and killed 87 people) — to really feel the true effects of the quake. We had felt similarly strong tremblers in the past, often from earthquakes off the eastern shore, without experiencing significant loss. Most of the deaths and damages occurred in the mountainous county of Nantou and other municipalities nearby. Living in the capital often made us oblivious to — or indifferent toward — the conditions of our rural and southern neighbors. That soon changed.

Collapsed high-rise in Taipei

A few weeks later, a student from Nantou transferred to my class. I don’t even remember her name, but I remember sitting next to her. She had moved from Puli Township, the geographic center, and was only going to be in our class for a few months. The teacher told us to be extra nice to her because of recent events. I remember only thinking about how different she was and how she had a weird family name. It wasn’t until later that I could process what had actually happened. It didn’t occurred to me that she was going through a difficult time at first, but I understood later. The new girl was there only because her home and school were destroyed. Her family had to move to a temporary shelter in the city until her town was rebuilt.

I can only imagine what it was like to be displaced by a natural disaster, to lose everything and become homeless overnight. I wonder how a second-grade girl was able to handle all that and still try to make new friends in a new place. I also wonder — to a lesser degree — what a disaster it must have been to be seated next to me. The following months were filled with frequent fundraisers for and updates on the reconstruction efforts.

Then, out of nowhere, it was time for the girl to return home. We all knew the day was coming, but it was still difficult to see her go. Everything supposedly went “back to normal,” but it didn’t feel quite the same. (Everything did go back to normal within a few days — we were second-graders after all.)

It has been almost two decades, but the 1999 quake will never be forgotten by those who experienced it firsthand. To this day, I have not yet encountered a stronger or deadlier natural disaster. A nation of 23 million people came together to mourn and to rebuild. I was just seven when it happened, but I witnessed both the resilience of man and the importance of hope under the most difficult of circumstances. These were manifestations of a sustaining faith that cannot be learned or taught any other way — the same faith that would guide, console, and unite a traumatized world almost exactly two years later through its darkest hours and beyond.

Virginia Task Force 1, Swiss Rescue, and friends
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