Monday, September 21, 2009

9/21 earthquake remembered

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the "9/21" earthquake in Taiwan and we remember the victims of that disaster.

Will update this post with pictures of Operation Lion Heart'99 in Taichung Country after I get them scanned. These pictures have never been publicised before.

The entire 39-member Operation Lion Heart rescue team, plus three rescue dogs, from the Singapore Civil Defence Force assembles for a photocall on 23 September 1999. This picture was taken soon after the morning muster parade, which was done every morning to take stock of the team's operational status and taskings for the day.

Despite their high operational tempo, the SCDF officers placed a heavy emphasis on team discipline and morale. They had no problems with either.

People may wonder why this picture was taken in an ops area. It was done for the benefit of the Lin family (seen here), to leave them with a photograph recording their contributions to the Ops Lion Heart team. The family owned several units in the row of shophouses and allowed the Lion Heart team to use their premises as an advance staging area as it was close to a collapsed condominium development.

My first night in Taichung County was spent sleeping on the floor with the Lion Heart team in the shophouse here. Due to frequent aftershocks, several SCDF officers slept outside under an open sky. They explained that this would save them time in the event of serious aftershocks.

My roomates included SCDF medics, a doctor and members of the SCDF's crack Disaster Assistance Rescue Team. Their presence was reassuring and I knew I was in good company.

A view of the Golden Paris condominium where the SCDF team was deployed.

The shock of the temblor tore apart several condomonium blocks. Just out of frame to the left of the image is part of the condo tower which was left standing, while the block tilted at a crazy angle to the right is the portion that collapsed with residents still inside. When this picture was taken, SCDF officers and Taiwanese rescuers were tunnelling into the rubble.

Another view of a collapsed condominium tower. SCDF officers from the Lion Heart rescue team have just begun entering the collapsed structure. Aftershocks shook the neighbourhood often. Note how the building rubble hanging precariously above the team posed a risk to rescuers. The SCDF team did a thorough recce and risk analysis before any deployment on site.

The SCDF Lion Heart team assembles for a commander's briefing under the constant gaze of the Taiwanese and foreign media. SCDF rescuers, regardless of rank, knew they were "ambassadors" for Singapore and conducted themselves with impeccable discipline throughout the operation. As the Lion Heart team dug further into the rubble, they carried the hopes of scores of survivors who watched from outside the security cordon.

A Taiwanese television crew and myself representing the 90 cents newspaper get a closer view of the rescue operation. The condo tower had collapsed during the night while residents slept inside.

The media were hungry for any scrap of news of the Lion Heart rescue operation. Seen here is a media scrum that developed whenever an SCDF officer updated journalists. The Lion Heart team was self sufficient in terms of transport, as they arrived in-theatre with a Land Rover Defender and one Heavy Rescue Tender, plus rescue trailer.

This is how the 90 cents media team and the Lianhe Zaobao team slept during our two weeks in Taiwan. Furniture, the electric fan and some bedding was donated by Taiwanese residents. By this time, the Lion Heart team had relocated elsewhere.

We chose to continue using the shophouse as a base area and thanked the Lin family for their hospitality. They cooked a hearty dinner for us everynight, despite our many protestations that we didn't want to inconvenience them.

We'd seen the damage sustained by high-rise structures and decided that a stay in (largely vacant) hotels in the vicinity just wasn't worth the risk.

We kept the shophouse unlocked whenever we ventured out to do chase stories. From time to time, curious residents would come in to watch us at work, reading over our shoulders and gawking at the images as the photojournalists processed them.

Their resilience was comforting.

Seen in the image is Enrique Soriano (90 cents paper photographer), and Lim Soon Hua (LHZB). The corpse-like creature is Dennis Thong, the LHZB photographer.

Many journalists aspire to cover exciting stories in disaster zones, but few realise the difficulties scribes face in such areas.

I was totally unprepared for my first embed during an operation. I'd packed the way most people pack for an overseas vacation and didn't even bring a bath towel. The SCDF logistics specialist provided one.

I promised myself that I'd be better equipped for future missions.

I did not have to wait long. In October 1999, the 90 cents paper sent me to East Timor to write about security operations by INTERFET. My first experience reporting on military operations other than war brought yet another round of lessons.

I won a Newscom (newspaper committee) monthly award for Excellence from SPH for the coverage of Operation Lion Heart.

Check next month's update: 10th anniversary of Operation Blue Heron.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks David for the photos and write up. These are precious. Mr Lin foresight to build a house with double its necessary foundation strength saved the day. There was precious water and the luxurious electricity for us. Cannot forget their generosity sharing their place with the team and the dogs.