When Lee Nien-tzu arrived at the toppled apartment complex before dawn Saturday, she could have felt shock at the scale of the ruins, disorientation at having just experienced a major earthquake, or foreboding over the task that lay ahead of her.
Instead, she briefly reflected on the sadness of the situation, then scaled a wall, clambered up a heap of rubble and climbed into a gap in the building’s tangle of concrete, wires and reinforcement bars. Over the next 18 hours, Lee — a waitress at a hotel with only a cursory understanding of first aid — helped pull 10 to 15 people from the building, including three dead children.
“I had hope the whole time,” she said. “And I felt that because I was being helpful, I didn’t get tired.”
At 3:57 a.m. Saturday, a magnitude 6.4 quake struck Tainan, a quiet city of 1.8 million in Taiwan’s south, killing at least 38 people. Most of them were in the Wei Guan Golden Dragon Tower apartment complex, a 17-story U-shaped structure, when it collapsed.
By Sunday afternoon, a picture of the scope of the tragedy — and the challenges of the rescue effort — began to emerge. Rescue workers had used infrared sensors, metal detectors and fiber-optic cables in their search, Chen Mei-ling, the secretary general of Tainan, said Sunday. By Monday morning in Taiwan, 207 people had been rescued; 117 were still beneath the rubble. Many of them may still be alive.
Workers were racing against the clock as uncommonly cold weather (53 degrees on Sunday night) and a lack of food and water meant that the buried victims’ chances for survival were rapidly diminishing. “We hope that within 72 hours, the golden period [for rescues], we can rescue all of them,” Chen said.
“Tonight is very cold,” she said later, “so I am not optimistic.”
On Sunday afternoon, a few dozen family members of the trapped people gathered near the building’s wreckage, anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones. Many stood silently crying, their hands clasped in prayer.
Hsu Xiu-xiang, a 52-year-old factory worker from Taoyuan, a city near Taipei in Taiwan’s north, feared for the life of her son, a 20-year-old Wei Guan resident and junior at nearby Kun Shan University. She said her son and two of his three roommates spent Saturday night at a karaoke club and returned to the apartment just before the building collapsed.
“They would have been parking their motor scooters in the basement or riding up in an elevator when it happened,” she said.
Around her, scores of rescue workers and firefighters continued to scale the rubble. On Sunday, they found two additional survivors, both men in their 20s. They also found more bodies, including those of two sisters, according to local media.
Hundreds of volunteers handed out supplies such as blankets, bottled water and simple meals.
Few have braved the rubble. Lee was a dynamic exception.
On Sunday, she returned to the site to see how the rescue effort was proceeding. She wore camouflage pants, a camouflage jacket and bright New Balance sneakers with turquoise laces. She said her emergency rescue qualifications amount to a first aid license from a two-day Red Cross certification course that she attended in high school.
Lee said she awoke when the quake hit, saw on Facebook that the building had toppled and arrived at the scene an hour later. Although the surrounding streets were closed off, she told one of the guards that she was delivering supplies, and he allowed her to enter. Three or four survivors milled around, but information was scarce.
“From outside, the building looks quite complete, but inside it’s completely broken,” she said. The air was filled with dust, making it difficult to see, even with a headlamp. “A lot of the spaces in there were made from walls that had collapsed in on each other,” creating a warren of claustrophobic crawl spaces.
“When I was in the building, I’d listen for people’s voices,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Is anybody there?’”
The first person Lee rescued was a woman in her 30s. She carried the terrified woman, who was wearing pajamas, out of the building and handed her off to other rescue workers. “She was put into an ambulance, and then I went back inside,” she said.
“I forget the second person I rescued,” she said. “There were too many.”
Lee stopped pulling people from the debris at 11 p.m., she said, after one of her contact lenses fell out.
Zhuang Mei-xing, a volunteer at the Tzu Chi Foundation, a large Buddhist charity organization, said Lee performed most of her rescue work while wearing a flimsy pair of slippers. “I just saw her storm in,” she said.
Lee said she planned to return to her nearby hometown, Kaohsiung, on Sunday night to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday with her grandmother, her mind still swimming with memories of the ordeal.
“I feel so sad about them,” she said, shaking her head. “I held three children, and they were dead.”