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Taiwan charges 5 people for apartment tower collapse in deadly February quake

Taiwanese prosecutors charged five people Thursday with professional negligence for their involvement in the construction of an apartment tower that collapsed in a February earthquake, killing more than 100 people.

The 17-story Wei-Guan Golden Dragon apartment complex in Tainan, a city in Taiwan’s south, toppled in the early hours of Feb. 6 during a 6.4 magnitude earthquake — the island’s worst since 1999 — and killed 115 people, all but one of the total who died in the temblor.

Many spent days trapped beneath a mountain of rubble before they died.

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Tainan’s prosecutors’ office charged the Wei-Guan Construction Company’s former chairman Lin Ming-hui, its design manager, two of its architects and a construction technician at an engineering firm.

Quakes regularly rattle Taiwan, an island on the Asia-Pacific ring of fire, and most of Tainan’s buildings should have been able to withstand the force of the quake. So prosecutors began in February a search for wrongdoing.

Prosecutors accused the defendants of sacrificing the quality of building materials to save money. All five were charged with professional neglect leading to severe injury and damage. Three were arrested, and the prosecutor is recommending to a district court that each serve the maximum sentence of five years.

“Suspects went so far as to cut corners and increase the floor area out of compliance with structural calculation,” prosecutor’s office spokesman Chen Chien-hung said. Specifically, Chen added, they had altered beam-column joints and column sections in the 27-year-old building.

Construction scholars and industry experts told Taiwanese media that weak concrete in the apartment towers may have led to their collapse.

The prosecution may ease lingering outrage among Tainan residents, said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. After the quake, some questioned the extent of faulty construction in their city of 1.9 million people.

“Right after the earthquake, people were very furious about the construction companies,” said Lee, a Tainan inhabitant whose running water was knocked out by the quake. “At the time you could feel that.”

The quake has sparked a government review of building safety throughout Taiwan.

Days after the quake, officials ordered that many older buildings and all schools be checked for safety. Last month, the government released a soil liquefaction study labeling swaths of land in eight cities and counties as highly at risk of letting structures collapse. The weakest areas cover about half of developed Taipei.

Officials vowed to spend $735 million over the next six years on infrastructure improvements.

Structures built in Taiwan before 1970 pose the greatest risk, quake experts on the island say, followed by those built between 1970 and the quake of 1999, after officials significantly boosted construction standards.

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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