Unknown to many in the West, Taiwan is blessed with some unique natural beauty. Its 168 mountains that top 3000 meters, squeezed into just 32,260 square kilometers, are unmatched anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, the old Formosa also sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a region around much of the rim of the Pacific Ocean where many volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.
With at least 33 active faults, Taiwan is prone to frequent seismic activity. Although most of it goes unnoticed or can barely be felt, in my case the fear of the forces of nature never goes away.
I quit drinking for good almost four and a half years ago. But getting drunk on the night of September 20th, 1999 saved me from experiencing the second-worst seism in Taiwan’s history, measuring 7.3 on the Richter magnitude scale.
It occurred around 2 AM on September 21st, when I was still sleeping off my intoxication. While it didn’t wake me up, other people run out of their houses in panic, many of them half-naked.
I needed the toilet around 5:30 AM, though, and was wondering why both the air-conditioner and the lights in the bathroom didn’t work. I only thought that I needed to talk to the landlord about this technical issue.
The next morning one of my colleagues called to tell me that we didn’t have to work that day due to the calamity. She probably thought I was making a bad joke when I asked which disaster she was talking about.
I got up anyway and after breakfast walked through an almost empty city with no functioning public transport. The metro station next to my apartment complex was closed and would reopen only the next day.
Surprisingly, in Taipei City the Tunghsiung Building at the intersection of Bade Road and Hulin Street was the only structure to be completely destroyed on that fateful occasion, killing 87 residents, injuring 105 and leaving more than 250 homeless.
Even more amazing was the miraculous rescue of two brothers, both in stable condition, from the rubble of the collapsed structure after almost six days.
The legacy of this catastrophe included 2,415 deaths, 29 missing, 11,305 severely wounded and over 100,000 buildings all over the country either destroyed or severely damaged. The economic damage totaled around 10 billion US dollars.
While having dinner with my Taiwanese girlfriend last Saturday, September 17th, 2022, I was reminded again of where I have decided to settle: suddenly the building started shaking.
My first thought was to protect two replicas of ancient vases that adorn my living room. Luckily the magnitude 6.4 tremor didn’t last very long and we enjoyed the rest of our meal.
It turned out to be less than 24 hours of deceptive calm. Around 3 PM the next day, September 18th, the strongest earthquake to hit Taiwan so far this year made me jump up from the sofa I was sitting on with her.
As this one lasted for almost a minute, I got really nervous. She opened the door of my apartment to avoid getting trapped inside. While I was wearing just my underwear, we waited in the staircase until the worst was over, which to me seemed like an eternity.
A worker at a cement factory in Hualien County on the eastern coast was killed by falling equipment, and at least 79 persons were injured as an apartment building and two bridges in the area collapsed.
As much as I enjoy living in this part of Asia, I will never get accustomed to these unpleasant experiences. To know that the next one might be only seconds away doesn’t make it any easier…