After Taiwan quake, families hold anxious vigil outside collapsed building

A woman prays outside a room set up for families and friends of earthquake victims in Tainan, Taiwan.

A woman prays outside a room set up for families and friends of earthquake victims in Tainan, Taiwan.

(Anthony Wallace / AFP/ Getty Images)

At 5 a.m. Sunday, 67-year-old Lin Tang-shui arrived outside the wreck of the Wei Guan apartment complex, hoping for a Lunar New Year miracle.

It was supposed to be a day of festivities, with Lin reuniting with his three grown boys for a family dinner on the eve of the most important holiday of the year in Taiwan. But Saturday’s predawn earthquake had crumpled the 17-story building in Tainan, where Lin’s middle son lived, turning the traditional day of celebration into an anxious vigil.

“It’s been a full month since I was last with him; we had dinner together then,” said Lin, wearing a beige jacket and knit cap as firefighters and military personnel combed through the rubble, and other anxious relatives of the missing stood nearby, sobbing. “We were going to meet him today for Lunar New Year, but then this happened.”


Lin’s son had bought his apartment at Wei Guan just three years ago for about $60,000. “My son worked at a tech company,” said Lin, who had stood watch all day Saturday as well. “He’s such an optimistic person, and had such a good relationship with his brothers. He’d play basketball with them whenever he had the chance.”

There was still hope: After dawn Sunday, rescuers pulled two people from the building, local media said, and they were working to free at least one other man who had been found inside, alive. But firefighters were still searching for 128 people whose relatives had reported them missing and believed they could be somewhere in the massive heap of twisted metal and concrete.

“Some might be in there, others we don’t know,” said Feng Ze-Quan, deputy director of the Tainan Fire Department.

At least 20 people, including a 10-day-old girl, were killed in the magnitude 6.4 earthquake, which hit hardest in the southern city, authorities said early Sunday; 18 of the dead were found in the Wei Guan complex. Another victim, a 56-year-old woman, was killed when a water tower toppled over.

Authorities said at least 484 people had been injured in the quake, but many of them suffered only minor wounds. In addition to Wei Guan, at least 10 other buildings collapsed.

The powerful shaking ripped a 10-foot chasm in a golf course, cut off water supplies to 400,000 people and halted high-speed rail service to the southern half of the island Saturday.

Rescuers using backhoes and other heavy equipment have helped hundreds of people out of danger — more than 260 of them from the ruins of the Wei Guan residential complex.

Wu Ching-chung, a Tainan firefighter, said the situation there was complicated.

“Because the building collapsed so completely, there was no space left for the people inside — no real pockets,” he said Saturday evening. Nevertheless, firefighters believed there could still be people alive.

Rescue work was hampered Saturday night by smoke billowing from a section of the Wei Guan complex, perhaps from a fire at a ruptured natural gas line. Officials had brought cranes and other construction equipment to prop up the listing structure.

Wu Cheng-chang, of Taiwan International Emergency Response, a nonprofit aid group, said conditions inside were difficult.

“We have to crawl in and use electric drills,” he said. “We are working in two-hour shifts.”

The quake cast a pall over the approach of Lunar New Year, a peak travel period on the island when many people return to their hometowns.

Major political parties, including the Democratic Progressive Party, canceled their nationwide New Year events. The party’s president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, instructed authorities in regions affected by the earthquake to give all available resources and manpower to the rescue efforts.

Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou flew to Tainan, pledging “all-out efforts” to rescue those who remained trapped and assist others affected by the disaster. Ma said the military had prepared 1,200 beds in four shelters in the area to accommodate the displaced.

On Sunday morning, Lee Rui-neng, an employee at Yung Mao Hsing Motor Drive Factory, an electric fan manufacturer about 500 feet from the collapsed Wei Guan building, was trying to do what he could to support the rescue effort.

“When the building fell there was a huge bang. It happened really fast, in about 5 seconds. I heard the bang, and immediately ran outside to look. It was awful,” said Lee. “My friend’s son and his family lived there, but they’ve been rescued.”

Lee had left the door of his factory open so rescue workers could use the bathroom. “Everybody’s trying to do their part, and that’s what we could offer,” he said. “You know there’s still a lot of people trapped inside.”

Nearby, volunteers handed out bottles of water, blankets and simple meals, such as soup and fried squid.

A group of nuns from the Taipei-based Fagushan Buddhist group wandered among the family members of survivors, singing Buddhist songs to comfort them as they stood sobbing, their hands clasped in prayer.

“We’re all holding out hope,” said Chung Yie-chang, a 47-year-old volunteer. “There are signs of life in there. We won’t give up hope”

The earthquake knocked out 69 power lines, affecting more than 121,000 households in the city, according to the Taiwan Power Co. Rail authorities said power cuts, rather than damage to tracks, was the reason for the suspension of train service. Water supply to about 400,000 households was interrupted.

Structural engineers told local media that it appeared the building where most of the deaths occurred may not have met earthquake standards, noting that photos taken before the quake show a base too narrow for a structure of such height in an active seismic zone. The Interior Ministry and Tainan’s mayor announced they would begin investigations into the building’s design and construction.

The epicenter of the shallow earthquake was under the central mountain range of Taiwan — about 27 miles southeast of Tainan and 24 miles northeast of Kaohsiung, the island’s main port city.

Kate Chou, who runs a hostel in Tainan, said she was on her way to the bathroom when the shaking started.

“The ground was not only moving sideways, but up and down as well. It felt like the Sept. 21 earthquake had come back,” she said, referring to Taiwan’s magnitude 7.6 quake in 1999 that killed about 2,500 people, the deadliest natural disaster in the island’s recent history.

“It was shorter than the Sept. 21 quake,” Chou added, “but for someone who had firsthand experience of the Sept. 21 quake, any trembling of the window or door could still seem ominous.”

Prashant Kumar, an engineering student at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, said the quake left “huge cracks” in the pillars of his dormitory.

“I am afraid of another earthquake like that, and I don’t know what will happen to this building,” said Kumar, who is from near Kolkata, India.

Throughout Saturday, there were moments of elation as the search efforts continued. Firefighters rescued a 7-year-old boy after following the cries of his cat, named Meow-meow, who stayed by his side after the quake struck, the Taiwan News said. Another woman was found after calling the fire department from her mobile phone and helping direct rescuers to her location.

Special correspondent Chan reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Times staff writers Makinen and Kaiman reported from Beijing and Tainan respectively. Special correspondent Chuan Xu and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.