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Sunday, September 26, 1999 Published at 19:40 GMT 20:40 UK

Awestruck by the Taiwan earthquake

Taiwan mobilised to tackle the chaos caused by the earthquake

By James Robbins in Taichung

From the 18th floor of a hotel in Taichung one night, I rang my wife at home in London for a chat and to reassure her that I was alright amid the heavy aftershocks of Taiwan's earthquake.

Quake in Taiwan
Yes, the hotel swayed and moved quite a bit, I had to admit, and yes, the city was far closer to the epicentre than the capital, Taipei, but after all, I told her, the skyscraper of 31 floors had comfortably survived the largest earthquake ever recorded on the island of Taiwan.

My wife asked what the overwhelming impression of my day had been.

[ image: Foreign rescue teams soon arrived in Taiwan]
Foreign rescue teams soon arrived in Taiwan
Somewhat apologetically, I told her that the word which forced its way to the front of my mind as we flew over some of the devastation in a helicopter was 'magnificent' - terrible but magnificent.

What I meant, I said, was that seeing a dam wall broken and the road bridge not far below it lying on the valley floor, I was in awe. I was humbled by the power and energy so violently released as the planet reshaped a part of its surface.

And yes, seismologists have been explaining in Taiwan this week that the stunning, dark mountains at the very heart of this island, which sit across the epicentre of the quake, have moved substantially, the landscape recast.

Emptiness and sadness

But news from the few scattered hamlets up there is still sparse. Helicopters cannot get down among the peaks. Roads and tracks have split apart.

A few small villages are still inaccessible for the moment at least.

Rescue efforts in the first days have been concentrated instead on towns which can be saved. The fear, emptiness and sadness among survivors is profound.

[ image: A monk negotiates the effects of the earthquake]
A monk negotiates the effects of the earthquake
In Taichung, Sarah said everyone knew someone who was lost or dead. In Puli, a pretty hill town known for the purity of its spring water, the panic when the earthquake hit was obvious from the stories.

The six members of the Tsai family were upstairs asleep in their home when the quake crashed first down and then from side to side. They were fleeing down the stairs when these shocks caught them.

The upper floors where they had been remained largely intact. But the front of the house fell off and the ground floor ceilings simply hit the earth as the building lost its whole bottom storey. All but one boy in the Tsai family were killed.

Just a few doors away friends had managed to get out of their house before it too collapsed. It is the not knowing which makes people so unhappy and so tense.

Inadequate research

Seismologists keep warning the people of Taiwan that a big quake is on the way, but this information is little more than useless.

The experts freely admit that all their research and their instruments are far from being able to tell where in Taiwan and, crucially, when a quake will hit.

There is simply no detectable warning. The initial subterranean explosion of pressure is instant.

[ image: Some blocks withstood the shocks better than others]
Some blocks withstood the shocks better than others
A true awareness of earthquakes means that regulations for new buildings here are tough and flagrant criminal negligence seems to have been much less serious than it was in Turkey a few weeks ago.

Where the regulations have been followed, even the tallest buildings survived. My 31-storey hotel in Taichung was spared because it is built on rollers, Simon explained.

He is one of the managers and he was asleep on the 26th floor with his wife and young son when the quake hit.

Their wardrobe leapt across the room, then the swaying started. But the building rolled with the earth and held. When I checked, there were little more than a few cracks in the mosaic paving outside to show for it.

[ image: Taiwanese soldiers rest for a few moments]
Taiwanese soldiers rest for a few moments
Sophisticated emergency lighting clunked on in every room each time the city plunged into the darkness of a power cut. This may have been the biggest earthquake ever to hit the island but, they say, it is still not the one that people have been predicting.

So the Taipei Times ran a double headline this week: "Quake of the Century" - not much comfort there as a new century is about to open - and below that "Brace Yourselves, the Big One is Yet to Come".

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