Sunday, 7 February 2016

The February 2016 Earthquake in Tainan: The Collapsed Weiguan Jinlong Building in Yongkang District (永康).

I post this the day after what is without doubt the worst earthquake during my time in Taiwan. It turns out the magnitude of the initial quake at 3.57 a.m. was actually 6.4 with a series of 4-5 magnitude earthquakes following as aftershocks. I remember it as occurring at four in the morning, and it was frightening because unlike previous years when I lived in high rise apartments, I now live in a little two-story house which shook violently from side to side. It felt the same as smaller, 4-5 magnitude earthquakes had whilst in my old ninth floor apartment. The dogs were terrified, but following the aftershocks we all went back to sleep.

I had already planned another field trip to Nantou and had tickets booked early because yesterday was the start of Chinese New Year and I had expected the trains to be full. When I woke up it was slightly later than I had planned and I was still very tired, not having slept well (partly due to the earthquake and partly due to other things I had had on my mind). I rushed myself through the usual coffee-shower-dress-kit routine and pushed the scooter out of the garage at about 7 a.m. with the train due to leave at 7.11 a.m. I drove fast as the roads were still empty and managed to get there on time only to find out that all trains had been delayed by 30 to 45 minutes.

The weather forecast for Changhua and Nantou counties had been sunshine with some cloud cover and relatively warm temperatures. However, as the train finally approached Ershui I noticed that it was all overcast and grey with not a ray of sunshine anywhere. The drive out of Ershui to Shuili was quick, interrupted only by a quick stop at a McDonald's to scoff a couple of egg-burgers, and it was not particularly cold (though I was in full-kit just in case). After Shuili though, the drive along the winding and dangerous 131 up into the hills lead me further and further into an especially dense blanket of fog. I had to keep wiping the condensation from my visor every two minutes. Eventually, and still at some considerable distance from Wuchieh, I reluctantly conceded defeat: even if I had continued on most of the photographs I had planned would almost certainly be ruined by the fog. I would only be able to take a few close-ups, but not the perspective shots of the tunnel infrastructure I had really wanted. So I turned around and headed back to Ershui. I stopped briefly only to change the engine oil; the bloke said he had felt the earthquake all the way up here in Nantou.

There was a bit of a nuisance with the trains, as I was given a ticket without any notice that I had to change trains at Chiayi. In the absence of a conductor or other train staff, I guessed my way onto one and then another south-bound train, which turned out to be the wrong one, getting me back to Tainan at 4 p.m. rather than the 3.12 p.m. time my ticket had originally stated. Once I had the dogs out and had had something to eat, I decided to go down to Yongkang with Karen; we wanted to see the building that news reports were saying had collapsed, and as I knew the road on which it had collapsed well, I was curious as to which building it was. I was also beginning to feel guilty about (a) going back to sleep after the earthquake, and (b) continuing with my trip to Nantou even though I had heard about buildings collapsing. I should have cancelled my trip and tried to do whatever possible to help, but I didn't. 

We drove down on my scooter to find the road cordoned off by police, so we parked at the 7-11 and walked down the road. Karen was nervous and concerned that the cops would bark orders at us to go away, but they didn't and I just walked on in any case with my camera bag and tripod. It was now well after 6 p.m. and dark. As we approached the scene of the collapsed building it suddenly dawned on me that it was a building I had known for several years, as I used to look out on it from the windows of a building I used to work in. It had always been a source of mild curiosity to me because of its' design; it had those tiles on the outside so typical of Taiwanese residential buildings, but instead of the usual white, as with the houses, these were a dirty, blue-grey colour. Of course it also had the typical rainwater stains down one side, and the water-tanks on the roof of the building had been housed in some kind of sculpture. The overall impression was of a building that was trying to look good on a very limited budget, which generates mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is something distrustful and creepy about it - the dark choice of colour, the attempt to look good with sculptures at the top but not bothering to prevent the rainwater stains with ledges. On the other hand, there is a sense of admiration at the builders trying to do their best and make something look mildly different and interesting within a limited budget. This is the kind of mixed feeling I get when I look at many Taiwanese apartment buildings of a certain age (i.e. built twenty to thirty years ago). They almost look good, but not quite - they mean well, though there is something wrong with them.

Here's the pictures I took last night...

In this shot you can see where the building snapped - the exposed white surfaces are the ceilings of what, just Friday gone, was somebody's apartment.
Even at this late hour, there were still clouds of dust blowing off the collapsed building.
This tea-shop at the back had been commandeered as a first aid center for the survivors; note all the boxes of bottled water.
From the north side of Yongda road looking south: the building just literally snapped and fell across the road. 
The army had cordoned off the road to allow only rescue workers and emergency services personnel through.
There were reporters and TV crews everywhere, outnumbered only by the emergency workers and the Buddhist charities. I chatted to some of them for a while, and one of them nodded at my suggestion that the building had had structural defects.
Excavators and cranes were used to prop up the north side of the building to prevent it from rolling over on one side.
The rubble between the excavators is from the sculptures that had adorned the building's rooftop.
A refrigerator tossed out of the building by emergency workers trying to work their way through the debris to find possible survivors. News reports last night were that over a hundred people were still missing, and twelve had been confirmed dead.
Emergency services personnel confer with one another beneath the brilliant light of an illumination tower they had set up earlier.
Entering the building via an upside down balcony door or window.
Another chap at an exit point signalling for something to be moved. Periodically, we would see them throwing debris out of the exits so that they could move around inside.
A crane was employed on the west side to lift various bits of rubble and concrete out of the way.
It's not just the collapsed building and the people trapped inside and underneath. The building also destroyed several businesses on the opposite side of the street. Once the remaining survivors are pulled out and the dead all accounted for, it is going to take months to restore this area to working order.
The emergency services people - the fire brigade men in particular, deserve all the praise they can get for their efforts. The building is still probably very dangerous and they could be killed whilst inside looking for survivors. It is remarkable that only this building, and one or two others elsewhere, collapsed and that many more buildings didn't. Perhaps the building contained structural defects in the design of the steel rods or the quality of the concrete used. If it did, I would be surprised if this was an exception and there must be many people throughout Taiwan now (certainly in Tainan) who live in similar high-rise apartments who are asking for information on their design and construction, and probably quite a few who slept nervously last night. I am certainly glad I no longer live in a high-rise apartment.

For now, those survivors who haven't been hospitalized yet are being housed in a junior high school behind the building to the west. I used to drive past this school several times a week on my way to work. For a lot of these people, this has been a colossal personal disaster and the worst possible start to Chinese New Year. I probably can't house any survivors myself but I can probably find some other way to help. I have an acquaintance in a former DPP legislator for Tainan who lives in this area. I can probably help him with whatever he is doing to help the survivors.

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