S’poreans fleeing quake grateful for help from Taiwan locals, Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

S’poreans fleeing quake grateful for help from Taiwan locals

Sitting ducks trapped in a death box – that was what a Singaporean engineer and his girlfriend thought after evacuating from their building when a 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck eastern Taiwan on April 3.

“We had evacuated to an elevated open field where we could see the sea, but our phones were blaring with tsunami warnings. Behind us, there were mountains, which I thought were the only place to run to, but there were landslides,” said Mr Max Zhang, 28.

“And the aftershocks kept coming. Mentally, it was bad. I was operating at my highest panic level,” he told The Straits Times over the phone on April 5.

Spooked by the quake, the couple cut short their planned week-long holiday, which started in Taipei on March 30, and flew back to Singapore on the first flight out on April 4.

What was supposed to be a relaxing holiday with his girlfriend to mark his first-year milestone at his job turned out to be the most terrifying experience of his life, said Mr Zhang.

On April 3 at around 8am, he had just woken up in their Airbnb accommodation in Hualien, the city nearest to the quake’s epicentre, when the building started to shake violently.

“As a Singaporean who had never experienced an earthquake before, I was shocked that concrete could sway that much. I was convinced it was over for us. You wouldn’t believe the floor you’re standing on is made of concrete – it wasn’t just moving left and right, it was going up and down,” he said.

The quake, Taiwan’s strongest in 25 years, prompted initial tsunami warnings in Taiwan, southern Japan and the Philippines that were later lifted.

In a panic, Mr Zhang and his girlfriend ran out barefoot from their third-floor apartment, where the refrigerator had toppled over, pipes were hissing and ceramic cups were shattered.

A metal gate on the ground floor leading outdoors was locked but later prised open by a fellow Singaporean tourist, he said.

“My thought was, either we stay and wait for death or we run. In hindsight, the building we stayed in was, thankfully, quite structurally sound, unlike the red slanted building we saw in the distance,” he added.

The “red slanted building” turned out to be the glass-fronted Uranus building, which, tilting at a precarious 45-degree angle, has become a symbol of the quake and one of the most recognisable images to emerge from the disaster.

The couple’s accommodation, which was along the coast, was about 1km from the Uranus building.

After the initial quake and about 10 aftershocks, Mr Zhang said they decided to return to their apartment to collect their passports, phones and wallets.

“We noticed there was a period of inactivity between the aftershocks, where everything was calm. So we timed it and ran up quickly to take our stuff. It was the most exhausting thing I’ve done in my life,” he said.

Mr Zhang and his girlfriend then found an elevated open field, where they serendipitously met a group of five local men, some of whom were indigenous Taiwanese.

“They were just smoking on the open field and were very relaxed. They kept reassuring us, such as telling us that while there are earthquakes, historically, Taiwan doesn’t see many tsunamis because of its geographical position,” he said.

“Honestly, we were panicking until we met them.”

The Taiwanese men offered to drive the couple southwards, first to Taitung and then to Kaohsiung, as they knew that Mr Zhang and his girlfriend would not be able to return to Taipei as train services were suspended.

“There was the element of stranger danger... we didn’t know them and they had no reason to help us, but we had to get out of there,” he said.

After eight hours on the road in a van, the couple reached Kaohsiung, where they spent a night and booked a flight back to Singapore the next morning.

“Now that we’re back in Singapore and seeing all the videos and photos coming out of the earthquake, I think we really lucked out and got away from the scene fast, thanks to the Taiwanese guys,” said Mr Zhang.

The day before the disaster, he and his girlfriend had spent half a day at Hualien’s Taroko Gorge, where landslides due to the quake claimed at least two lives.

He said: “It doesn’t bring me any joy when I look at those photos of the gorge in my phone now, because we were the last few people to capture it in its original state before the disaster.”