Chen Chien-hsiang had just gone to sleep in the apartment where he had lived for some 20 years. So had most people in the 12-story building, tucked between a creek levee where people stroll by day and a neighborhood of restaurants and massage parlors that’s active at night.
When Chen awoke, his world had turned topsy-turvy.
A magnitude 6.4 earthquake had violently rocked his building, then knocked it off its moorings. It was tilting at a 45-degree angle, spilling occupants into the corners of their apartments, with the floors suddenly sloping at crazy angles. Chen found it impossible to crawl or claw his way to the door.
“Wow, stuff was all over the place,” the 66-year-old retired antiques dealer said Wednesday.
His sixth-floor flat had become, in effect, a second story.
Chen was among the dozens who would eventually be rescued from the multi-use building, the worst of five damaged in Taiwan’s quake. At least four people died there and an estimated six others were feared trapped in the hardest-hit ground level and second floor. Overall, the National Fire Agency reported, nine people died and 266 were injured in Tuesday’s quake.
The structure, named Yun Tsui, became a focal point Wednesday for hundreds of rescue personnel. Rescues had wrapped up at other damaged buildings, while hundreds more stood without incident in Hualien, a city of 100,000 on the northeast coast of Taiwan.
Rescue crews led by the Hualien County Fire Department pulled all occupants out of floors three through 12 overnight, a department spokesman said. They were able to extend ladders onto balconies or through windows, many of which had been broken. Chen climbed onto a balcony after breaking through the glass door he could reach from the corner of a room.
But after dawn, the fire department suspended relief to take another look. The building was slowly continuing to tilt, threatening to collapse outright and threaten any rescue workers inside, disaster relief center worker Chen Tzai-tung said.
Portions of the bottom four floors collapsed. The lower two were partly buried. The building’s decorative, semicircular glass facade — a hallmark of Taiwanese multi-use architecture in the 1980s — had also caved into the ground.
So the county ordered four steel construction beams be inserted into the building’s mid-level windows and corners to stop it from collapsing. Then, as rain muddied the ground, rescue work stopped again so crews could place large concrete blocks against the beams to keep them from slipping.
Six adults and one child, guests at the two-story Beautiful Baby Inn, were trapped underground, fire department spokesman Chu Che-ming said.
“This work won’t go so quickly,” said Fan Kang-wei, a Red Cross rescue volunteer at the scene. “Where these people are buried, we still don’t know. As it gets darker, it gets all the harder.”
“The whole thing was underground, so we had to dig and dig and dig,” said Yen I-chia, deputy captain with a rescue team from northern Taiwan who was taking a break at his rain-soaked plastic tent a block away from the building. “Progress is slow now because of so many uncertainties.”
By Wednesday evening the search was back on as the concrete buttresses were holding. The county had ordered workers back inside with flashlights to search through dark, cramped underground spaces where the hotel walls had collapsed but beams still held.
“The first to fourth floors are collapsed and it’s a really tight space, so rescue work is quite difficult,” Chu said after a mid-evening meeting to discuss safety measures for the next shift of people due to enter the building. “We don’t rule out any danger of collapse danger, especially with so many aftershocks.”
Some 160 aftershocks, one as strong as magnitude 5.7, shook the county in the first 24 hours after the quake.
Outside, about 1,400 staff people and volunteers from charity organizations mixed in the crowded streets packed with ambulances and lined mostly by low-rise retailers. Firefighters from around Taiwan plus more than 400 army troops huddled in their tents to be called for backup.
Charities handed out coffee and bowls of soup to survivors as well as weary rescue workers. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation alone had given away 1,210 blankets and 3,600 meals in the first 16 hours after the quake.
“We’ve seen people coming out after a rescue and of course they’re really happy,” Tzu Chi publicist Eason Pan said. One came out carrying a child, the Red Cross worker said.
Building residents who had escaped unharmed slept outside to avoid the danger of aftershocks.
“It happened really fast and everything was falling over,” said Chen Chien-chieh, 26, a neighbor of Chen Chien-hsiang who lived in a two-story building above his family’s diner. He and his mother and father all took to the streets after being awakened by the quake. “We went back inside only this morning. We slept in cars. Almost everyone did.”
Chen Chien-hsiang became one of the 786 people admitted to emergency shelters in Hualien. He was too keyed up to sleep.
By late Wednesday, he was eyeing his bunk in an elementary school auditorium with about 100 other people, including children, many too scared to return to their undamaged homes around Hualien because of the aftershocks. A shout went up whenever an aftershock rattled the school, which was on holiday break.
Taiwan sits on a Pacific Rim chain of fault lines. The last major quake, which also measured 6.4, toppled an apartment complex in 2016 and killed 116 people.
“We get so many earthquakes in Hualien,” said Chen, who had grabbed his cellphone but nothing else before fleeing. “I’m usually not scared of quakes. But this was like the day the world ended, really scary.”