The September 21 Earthquake—A Look Back 20 Years Later

That night, the earth shook and trembled powerfully. The first thing that Tzu Chi volunteers thought was: “What can I do?” Even though traffic was snarled and their own homes were damaged, nothing could stop them from rushing to the aid of the less fortunate. They witnessed death, loss, and tremendous grief as they reached out to those whose lives had been turned upside down by the temblor. Looking back two decades later, volunteers are glad that they were there when they were needed.

At 1:47 a.m. on September 21, 1999, a tremendous earthquake jolted Taiwan from its slumber. People screamed, jumped out of their beds in panic, and ran for their lives. Some didn’t even get the chance to rise from their beds. Impermanence intervened, and they were forever separated from their loved ones.

That was 20 years ago. For most, memories of that time have blurred with age. For those who lost their loved ones, however, the disaster left indelible marks—the longing they feel for their lost family members will always be there. The quake also left a lasting impact on those who personally took part in the relief work.

The epicenter

The epicenter of the September 21, 1999, earthquake was located in Jiji Township, Nantou County, central Taiwan. Originating just eight kilometers (five miles) below the surface, the magnitude 7.3 temblor brought instant, extensive damage to Nantou and its northern neighbor, Taichung. Casualties and injuries were also reported in Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi, Miaoli, Taipei City, and Taipei County (now New Taipei City). According to statistics released by the Taiwanese government, the quake lasted 102 seconds, killed 2,415 people, and damaged over 10,000 buildings.

Tzu Chi volunteer Lin Shen (林慎), who lives in Jiji Township, recollected that she didn’t go to bed until after one o’clock that night. She was so worn out after a long day that she didn’t pay much attention when she felt the earth moving soon after she lay down. She felt that she had been put into a rocking cradle. It wasn’t until she heard the thumping sounds of objects falling on the floor that she realized danger had descended on her and her home.

When she got up and tried to open the door, it refused to budge. “It took all the strength I had to push it open,” she recalled. When she finally got it open, she ran to help her mother-in-law get out of the house. Fortunately, their home did not suffer much damage.

Lin’s daughter lived in the same town. She rushed to Lin’s house to check on how things were going, and she reported, terrified, that many people who lived on her way there had died.                                                          

Electricity had been knocked out by the quake, so Lin, her daughter, and Lin’s sister-in-law—all three of them Tzu Chi volunteers—began using the light from the headlight of a motor scooter to assess damage in the dark streets. They heard people crying and calling out for help all along the way.

Lin rushed to the fire station to ask for help. She said to a man there, “Can your people go out to rescue victims?” “Our men are all out,” the man said. He had stayed behind to hold down the fort.

The temblor had wreaked such devastating damage that first responders were spread very thin. Their first priority was to rescue people who were still alive. Recovery of the dead would have to wait. One of Lin’s sisters-in-law had died in the disaster, but no one was around to remove her body from the collapsed building. They could only wait.

Since almost all communications were cut off, Lin, holding in her grief and fear, went to the local government-run water purification station to use their phone. Lin placed a call to the Jing Si Abode, the Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, eastern Taiwan. When the call was put through, Master Cheng Yen said to her, “You must calm down. Remember not to let your fellow villagers starve. Take good care of them. If you need anything, give your requests to our Taichung branch office. I’ll immediately arrange for needed items to be sent over.”

Dongshi Township in Taichung is located on a fault bend. More than 300 people there were killed in the September 21, 1999, temblor, making it the town with the most fatalities in Taiwan. Photo courtesy of Wang Yi-fan

That was after five in the morning, but more than two hours earlier, before three, a disaster relief coordination center had already been set up at the Jing Si Abode. In the heavily hit Taichung area, Xiao Hui-te (蕭惠特), a Tzu Chi employee, had arrived at the Tzu Chi branch office on Minchuan Road at 2:05 a.m. Disaster reports and requests for help began flooding in. Soon afterwards, everyone at the office—in departments including social work, finance, and general affairs—took up their posts and went to work. Tzu Chi volunteers all over the island had also mobilized.

“There was a lot to do,” recalled volunteer Zeng Cai-qin (曾彩琴), an elementary school teacher in Zhushan Township, Nantou County. “First we delivered supplies to the needy. Then we began serving hot meals. We also set up medical stations and inspected collapsed buildings.” She said that after the earthquake, she quickly swept up the shattered glass in her home before putting on her volunteer uniform and going out to help. Even after working all day, she didn’t return to her damaged home to rest. “My family was all taking shelter at Zhushan Junior High. I didn’t join them there because I needed to volunteer and didn’t want to go that far. I slept in my car instead.”

In the aftermath of the quake, Tzu Chi set up 30 aid supply stations in Taichung and Nantou, providing food, tents, sleeping bags, comforters, lighting equipment, etc. 24 hours a day for quake victims and first responders.

Knowing that many people had run out of their homes in a hurry and all they had was the clothes on their backs, Master Cheng Yen instructed Tzu Chi volunteers to immediately distribute emergency cash to victims.

Volunteers first took out all the cash they had at home to distribute, but that was far from enough. They couldn’t withdraw money from banks either, because electricity was out and banks were not open. Even ATM machines were not working. When volunteers in Taipei and Taichung reported on the situation, the Hualien headquarters arranged to have 20,000,000 NT dollars (US$666,670) withdrawn from banks in Hualien and rushed to the disaster areas in Taipei and Taichung.

Rescuers search through the rubble for survivors at a three-building complex that collapsed in Xinzhuang, Taipei. The September 21 earthquake toppled and damaged more than 100,000 buildings in Taiwan. Rescue workers from over 20 countries arrived on the island to help rescue victims. Guo Yi-te
Tzu Chi volunteers render logistic support to victims and rescue workers at a collapsed 12-story building in Songshan, Taipei. Lin Feng-qi

Mobilized island-wide

Before 11 a.m. on September 21, volunteers from Taichung had arrived at the Jiji township office. The Tzu Chi flags flying on their vehicles and the relief supplies they had brought lifted survivors’ spirits.

Group after group of volunteers from all over the island also began arriving at the disaster areas in northern and central Taiwan. They assessed damage, visited affected households, and distributed aid. Volunteer Lin Shen said, “There were volunteers from Miaoli, Changhua, and other places. Volunteers from Tainan came here to Jiji to cook for us, and more from Kaohsiung went to help out in Zhushan. There was a clear assignment of areas of responsibility.”

Like non-government sectors that had quickly mobilized, the military, police, and firefighters had been quick to respond too. Gu Feng-tai (谷風泰), a Tzu Chi volunteer in Kaohsiung, was a colonel in the Army at the time. He recalled that the shaking was so powerful that they knew that there was bound to be serious damage. “A disaster relief command center was immediately set up at our headquarters in Longtan,” Gu said. “As soon as day broke, our commander-in-chief, accompanied by top-ranking staff, took a helicopter to central Taiwan to inspect the damage.”

On the same day, the Army Headquarters set up a command station in Fengyuan, Taichung, to direct troops stationed in central Taiwan to help with the relief work in the disaster areas. An operations order was issued to mobilize 3,000 soldiers from southern Taiwan to aid the mission. The soldiers were commanded to make a rapid march and arrive at Jiji by six the following morning.

Within the golden 72 hours, military personnel, firefighters, and volunteer rescue workers from all over Taiwan bent over backward to rescue people trapped under rubble. Thirty-eight rescue teams from 20 countries, including the United States, Japan, Korea, and Russia, also rushed to Taiwan to join the rescue. Thanks to their around-the-clock efforts, some people were saved. But a far greater number of people sadly perished.

The military provided a lot of body bags to contain the deceased. Tzu Chi also supplied 1,600 body bags. In addition, the foundation borrowed ten refrigerated containers from the China Ship Building Corporation (now known as “CSBC Corporation, Taiwan”) to help store the bodies of the departed. Lee Tsung-chi (李宗吉), a Tzu Chi volunteer and shipping tycoon, also dispatched two reefer containers from his company to central Taiwan.

To prevent the bodies stored in the containers from sticking to each other, Tzu Chi volunteers went into the containers every half hour to turn the bodies. “Do you have bracelets of Buddhist prayer beads to spare? Can you give me one?” some soldiers asked Tzu Chi volunteers. The young soldiers were helping move bodies and they were shaken by being so close to so many deaths. Volunteers generously gave these young people sets of prayer beads to help calm their minds.

Master Cheng Yen visits Zhongliao Township, Nantou County, to inspect the conditions there and supervise Tzu Chi’s relief operations.  Huang Jin-yi
Relief supplies poured into the disaster areas after the temblor. Tzu Chi volunteers helped sort the items and distributed them to victims.  Hsiao Yiu-hwa

Temporary housing

From the time the quake hit on September 21 to the end of that month, Tzu Chi volunteers put in more than 100,000 shifts in the disaster areas. They served 1,300,000 hot meals and distributed relief supplies and provided medical treatment to 260,000 people. With supplies donated by kind-hearted people around the island pouring into the disaster zones, survivors were not in need of necessities. However, they did need places to live.

Volunteer Zeng Cai-qin, the elementary school teacher mentioned above, recalled that classes at her school were suspended after the quake, so she threw herself into Tzu Chi’s relief work. When she returned to her school to teach on the seventh day after the quake, she found the playground covered by tents for survivors. Since water and electricity had been interrupted, sanitary conditions were not good.

A tent was not an ideal place to live in in the long run. To help the disaster areas return to normalcy as soon as possible, Master Cheng Yen decided to help build temporary housing for survivors. “Only when the survivors are properly settled will their minds be at peace,” she said.

The housing units Tzu Chi built for victims were each 432 square feet in area. Each unit contained three bedrooms, a living room, a dining area, a kitchen, and a bathroom. By providing the complete facilities, the foundation hoped to help survivors live more comfortably, thereby instilling strength in them and inspiring them not to lose heart.

After learning that Tzu Chi was building prefabricated houses for survivors, governments of the counties and cities affected by the quake helped the foundation procure the land. Kind-hearted landowners also provided free land for Tzu Chi to use. On September 29, construction of the first batch of housing units started on a baseball field in Zhongxing New Village in Nantou City. Construction of other batches of housing units followed one after another.

Volunteers from all over Taiwan and even abroad pitched in to help with the construction. They worked rain or shine so that new housing units could be completed as quickly as possible. During that time, Chen Jin-chuan (陳金傳), an electrician and plumber, traveled several times from Taipei, where he lived, to Dongshi and Nantou to volunteer in the project. He said that after the quake, he had driven his own vehicle to the heavily hit Zhongliao area to deliver relief supplies to victims, but he soon realized that working alone would never be better than providing organized aid along with others. That’s why he joined Tzu Chi volunteers in helping survivors. The following year, he even began training to become a certified volunteer.

Chen remarked that things progressed rapidly with so many people working together to build the houses. “It’s hard to imagine how amazing it was if you didn’t participate in it personally,” he said. “It was like time-lapse photography. One day the ground was all cleared, the next day the foundation was laid, and soon after the frames of the houses went up. Everyone worked hard because we all hoped that survivors could move out of their tents as soon as possible. A tent wasn’t a comfortable place to live in.”

On November 15, 1999, 320 prefabricated houses in Puli Tzu Chi Great Love Village I were inaugurated. Hong Wu-zheng (洪武正), a Tzu Chi volunteer from Taichung, remembered seeing a young woman with five youngsters in tow in the village. Guided by a volunteer, they were trying to locate the house that they were assigned to by looking at doorplate numbers. When they found it, the woman and children hugged each other and cried uncontrollably in front of the house.

The mother was young-looking, but two of her children were already as tall as she was. Hong and a few female volunteers approached them and found out that the older children were not hers but her husband’s older brother’s, and the one she was carrying on her back was her husband’s younger brother’s. The older and younger brothers, their wives, and even the woman’s own husband had all been killed in the quake. The woman told the volunteers in tears that she was the only adult left in her family, and she was at a loss about what to do. The volunteers immediately listed the family as one that the foundation would help.

The construction project lasted from September 29 to December 28. During that time, Tzu Chi volunteers and other people from Taiwan and abroad put in more than 180,000 shifts to complete the project. In three months, they finished over 1,700 temporary housing units in Nantou, Yunlin, and Taichung.

Immediately afterwards, volunteers threw themselves into a school reconstruction project called Project Hope. (Under this initiative, Tzu Chi rebuilt 51 schools destroyed or damaged in the earthquake.) At the same time, volunteers continued to provide care for Great Love Village residents. Members of the Tzu Chi Teachers Association and the Tzu Chi Collegiate Association also held summer and winter camps at Project Hope schools to help children emerge from the traumatic experience of the earthquake.

In the aftermath of the quake, medical teams formed by staffers from Tzu Chi hospitals and members of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association visited eight severely hit towns to provide medical aid. Guo Yi-te
Tzu Chi volunteers hit the streets to raise funds for quake victims. Hong Hai-peng

Two decades later

“It’s been 20 years. How’ve you been, everyone?” a volunteer asked the attendees of a reunion held by the Tzu Chi Puli office in May 2019 for former residents of three Great Love Villages in Puli. Time had flown. Nearly 20 years had passed since the earthquake.

Gao Zong-yang (高宗暘) was a teacher at Puli Vocational High School when the temblor hit. He and his family became homeless after the earthquake, and they later moved into one of the three Great Love Villages in Puli. “We would’ve felt differently if we had rented a house to live in instead of moving into the village,” said Gao. “My wife was so traumatized by the quake that she became frightened of older houses, especially those built of bricks.” He remembered that when they moved into the prefabricated house built by Tzu Chi, his wife had cheerfully exclaimed, “Now we no longer have to be afraid of earthquakes.” What’s more, the environment of the village was so good that Gao and his wife couldn’t wait to go home every day after work.

“When we were moving out of the village,” Gao continued, “we thought of how Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi volunteers had helped us. We wanted to say, ‘Thank you,’ but we didn’t know who to talk to. Now, 17 years later, we can finally extend our appreciation to you here.”

Gao thanked the foundation for giving his family such excellent support when they were at their most helpless. He was now retired and had begun participating in public service activities as a way to give back to those who had helped him years ago, even though they didn’t know him.

Xu Feng-zhu (徐逢助) was another survivor who once lived in a Tzu Chi prefabricated house in Puli. “Tzu Chi volunteers have given me unceasing care and encouragement over the past 20 years,” he observed. “They’ve given me courage to face the future.” There were five people in Xu’s family. Their house collapsed in the temblor. After the calamity, the financial burden on him was so heavy he had to work odd jobs in addition to his regular one. That’s why he was very grateful that he and his family could move into a Tzu Chi prefabricated house. With his family settled, he was better able to focus on his work and make money to support them. Looking back, the 60-year-old Xu said, “Because of the experience, I became a Tzu Chi donating member. I wanted to help needy people in the world.”

The passage of time may have blurred the footprints of love from that year, but seeds of kindness had been planted in people’s hearts, prompting them to put their love into action. Love has endured despite the heartrending destruction.

(Information provided by Zhang Li-yun, Zhang Mei-ling, Zheng Shu-zhen, Shi Jin-yu, and Xu Kun-long)

November 2019