7 years ago, on 21 September 1999, I was caught in one of the worst natural disasters - the 921 earthquake - 921 because it happened on 21st September - in Taiwan. I was lucky to be in Taipei, far enough from the epicenter to have my life spared. However, it was still a harrowing experience, and I won't wish anyone an earthquake anytime soon. This is my story ... and it's sort of dedicated to the whole gang who were there at that time, KYC, LYC, TCH, VL, KSL and WHY.
It was late. Very late. We only left the office at around 1.30 am. For us, working in a press publishing company means the working hours are at odds with the rest of the world's. We start at 12pm and wrap things up at 8pm.
After around 9 months or so of constant hardwork, latenights and plenty of heartaches, the system went live. So, we were moved to a new office that day.
The walk back from office to apartment took no more than 5 minutes, even at the snail's pace we were walking, no thanks to the strain of yet another hard day at work. We were just around the corner.
Once home, all of us got ready to wind down. Each went to their own room, except me and Yew Cheng, we always stopped by the couch for a bit of TV to wind down.
Yew Cheng suddenly recalled that the lights in the office weren't switched off. Who was the last one? Why wasn't the lights turned off?
I tried to reason with him. It's nearly 2 am, for heaven's sake.
No, we should switch it off. Yew Cheng doesn't want any trouble with the customer tomorrow just because some lights weren't switched off.
Yew Chiang (not to be confused with Yew Cheng), walked out of the room, still in his work clothes, and told us it was him. He was the last one out of the office. He would go back to turn the lights off. I reasoned with him not to, Yew Cheng stood his ground and asked Yew Chiang to take the short walk back to switch off the lights.
He handed Yew Chiang the keys, and thanked him.
I started an argument with Yew Cheng. What's the matter with him? Does it really matter if we get pissed for not switching off lights? As if no one else in the big, bad corporate world ever forgot to turn off the lights.
We started a heated discussion. It was so typical of us - both me and Yew Cheng are hot headed. We're both pretty stubborn people who hold our ground well in arguments. After all, we make a living doing it.
And then ... it happened ...
It must have been not more than 3 minutes since Yew Chiang left the apartment when the first signs of an impending earthquake showed up. Time: 1.43 am.
There was a small, minute vibration lasting a split second which was the first salvo. On the tail of that, an immediate rattling sound from the horizon came. The only way I can describe it is that it sounded like a billion Jurassic Park T-Rexes stomping randomly. That caught both me and Yew Cheng's attention. We stopped whatever argument we were in, and both of us stood still, and just moved our eyeballs towards the general direction of the sound, which was coming from the west.
The rattling grew in a rapid crescendo, and in maybe 2 seconds since the rattling began, the lights were cut out. I thought to myself then that if this happened 3 minutes earlier, Yew Chiang won't have to make the walk back to the office.
And then it came. The most violent shaking you could ever imagine in your life took place. The floor beneath our 10th floor apartment shook from side to side, as if a giant Ultraman villian grabbed our building and shaking it like a cocktail mixer.
The couch broke my fall - I remember falling forward and hitting my face against the sofa, which was thankfully, soft. Yew Cheng managed to steady himself by bracing against anoher sofa. And the shaking continues.
For a split second, it appeared to have stopped, but after what was the shortest possible pause you can imagine, we felt the floor was now shaking up and down ... I was to later learn that earthquakes unleashes 2 types of shockwaves - the P and S waves, which results in either side-to-side shocks, or up-and-down shocks.
They later said it was 45
minutes seconds, but it really felt like 5 minutes to me then. I remember looking out the window of the apartment and seeing the building on the opposite side actually swaying sideways. I actually believed then that a collapse of the building I was in was imminent.
The night out
After the shaking, I immediately told Yew Cheng that I feel everyone should evacuate the building. We got everyone out of the rooms - and asked everyone to just bring with them their passports.
And we walked down 10 flights of stairs with 2 flashlights only. The emergency lights hadn't work, and the power's out.
Near the apartment where we lived was this school with an open area - a few basketball courts, a field and a running trek.
All of us ignored the slight rain - it drizzled soon after the quake. And we gathered there, along with ever increasing others - many of the Taipei residents took refuge in the open space with us, fearing for our lifes.
The first police patrol cars came by soon, and we were told that free food and drinks would be available at the local 7-11. Yew Chiang managed to find us in the open area, and told us of his own lucky escape when a piece of tile dropped about 1 feet away from him on his walk to the office.
Inevitably, the aftershocks came. While neither as long, nor as powerful as the initial quake, each aftershock pounded more fear into us. Some of the glass windows in the school must have cracked or exploded, we could hear the glass shards falling onto the cold ground when the stronger aftershocks hit us.
And while we didn't know it then, we could see in the horizon to the northwest, what appears to be flames, or at least, very bright lights - a building actually toppled not very far from where we were.
Throughout the night, we guys were very quiet - probably shocked. The girls weren't their chatty self, and the guys were just stoic.
The only communication with the outside world was through radios - we could hear reports from small pocket radios that some of the people have with them. You can tell there were radios because small clusters of people would form an impromptu radio gathering around the radios, anxious for news.
It was an earthquake measuring at least 7 on the richter scale. It was centered in Central Taiwan. No major damage in Taipei. No news from the epicenter. No way to gauge damage until first light.
When the only cellphone we had in our group was able to make calls again, we immediately called home to inform our unsuspecting loved ones about the earthquake, and to reassure them.
We did get our free food and drinks, and spent the night out in the open, returning to the apartment only at first light. Even then, we were too afraid to sleep in our rooms, so everyone just slept in the living area, and we kept the TV on for more news, just that no one actually watched it.
See some pics of the earthquakes impact here and here.
And read about it from Wikipedia as well. And here too.
21 September 2006