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.”