921 – Tanya Visceglia
November 26, 2021
“921” marks the date of the second-largest earthquake in Taiwan’s recorded history. On September 21st, 1999, at 1:47 a.m., an earthquake struck near Nantou, in central Taiwan. Within seconds, a series of 7.3 tremors released the equivalent of 40 atomic bombs of energy, which radiated out to every corner of the island. The writer Man-chuan Chang described her experience at the first jolt: “The shuddering building made shrieking sounds as if it were ready to collapse at any moment. I was terrified and thought I was about to die. That feeling that the world was ending has become part of me and will remain with me all my life.”
2455 people were killed in the 0921 Earthquake and its aftershocks. Another 11,305 were reported injured, and 50 were declared missing. Over 80,000 buildings either fully or partially collapsed. Economic losses related to the quake were estimated at US$10.9 billion. “The event has acquired a resonance in Taiwan comparable to ‘9/11’.” (Su, 2012) Having experienced 9/11, this rings true for me. 921 is Taiwan’s 9/11 moment; destabilizing, it shook the whole country’s sense of security, even for people who were far from the site and not directly affected. Like 0911, everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. “Who did you call first? Were you asleep or awake? Outside or inside?”
My friend Lisa, who was living in Taipei at the time, shared this story: “I had just gone to bed and was about to turn off the light. As I stretched out my arm, the room went dark. I thought ‘Damn, I’m good. I just moved that switch with the power of my mind.’ Then, the whole house started shaking. I remember two jolts: after the first one, I went and stood in the doorway of the bathroom. After the second one, there was nothing. I waited, then went outside to an open area with no buildings around. I didn’t see or talk to anybody, so after a while, I just went home and got back into bed. After a couple of hours, my phone started ringing with calls from relatives in Minnesota. My sister started with: ‘You’re not dead, are you? It’s all over the news.’ I was annoyed because I had finally gotten to sleep and didn’t realize how big or bad it was until the next day.”
Earthquakes are not an uncommon occurrence in Taiwan. Set in the Pacific Ring of Fire, we are delicately perched on the seismic hot spot where the Eurasian and Philippine sea plates converge. Forty-two active faults run through the island. Most of the earthquakes in Taiwan originate in the Pacific Ocean. Bigger earthquakes with epicenters offshore actually cause less damage than smaller quakes under the island itself. And the closer an epicenter is to the surface, the more strongly we feel the reverberations.
The first earthquake I ever experienced hit Taipei two weeks after I arrived for a short research trip in 2002. Its epicenter was four hours east and under the ocean floor. But at 6.8 on the Richter scale, it was impossible to miss. It destroyed three office buildings and over a hundred homes. A high-rise building under construction in central Taipei partially collapsed, killing five workers. At the moment it struck, I was singing living-room karaoke with a recent acquaintance, walking her slowly through the lyrics of “Unchained Melody,” when the floor started to sway: first lightly, then with increasing vehemence. Hanging lamps swung above our heads, and a heavy, antique mirror fell off the wall and shattered. Kitty was an older, conservative woman, who had never even kissed my cheek in greeting, but we held each other and whimpered until the room was still. Within forty seconds, it was all over. Frozen, embarrassingly incapable of offering help, I watched as Kitty swept up broken glass and reassured me that it was ok to go home.
Occasionally, the quakes are big enough to make international news. In 2016, a 6.1 earthquake struck in Meinong, a fruit-farming district in the south, at a relatively shallow depth of 23 km. Almost all of the 116 deaths in that quake were caused by the collapse of an apartment complex in Tainan. Most buildings in Taiwan are held to strict earthquake inspection codes, but post-disaster inspections revealed that the supporting columns of these apartment buildings had been filled with old rags and salad oil containers to save a few bucks. On February 6, 2018, a 5.8 earthquake hit the coastline near Hualien. At least 17 deaths were reported, most of which were also the result of construction code violations. CNN footage of a collapsed hotel in Hualien lying on its side, with rescue cranes lifting out bodies and survivors, prompted calls of concern from overseas: “Is everything ok? Aren’t you afraid? Do you want to come home?”
Not really. Living in fear of earthquakes would just take up too much emotional bandwidth. It also makes as much sense as being afraid of a piano falling on your head from a window ledge: you can never predict when it will happen, and even if it does, you’re either in the right place or the wrong place. The normal side-to-side movement of an earthquake isn’t nearly as destabilizing as the rare vertical pulses, which feel like the earth has grown tired of you and wants to push you off once and for all. Usually, around one minute before an earthquake hits, the government sends out an alert message. That doesn’t leave you enough time to take any real precautions, so you wait to see if you can feel the tremors. After a few seconds, you get a sense of how bad it will be. If you happen to be on a high floor or hard-hit area, the quickest, most effective move you can make is to get to a place where nothing can fall on you. By the time you really start to panic, it’s over.
As for fear of random threats in general, growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s has gifted me with extremely low standards for public safety. New Yorkers have always known that a sense of security is an illusion, that any situation has the potential to turn on you at any time. As children, we were taught some common-sense rules, but we knew that even if you followed them all, you might end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then you were just fucked.
Here are some of the rules my mother taught me for everyday survival:
1. Always keep your keys in your hand and look behind you before unlocking the door.
2. Never use an underpass at any time of day or night. By the time you can see who’s down there, it’s too late to escape, and no one can hear you call for help.
3. Never go into a public park at night. Avoid them during the day too, if they’re empty.
4. Always use the main exit of the subway, and never be the last person left on the stairs.
5. Never display jewelry or count money in public.
6. If you think someone is following you, you’re probably right. Go into a bodega and wait until the person leaves. If they don’t leave, ask the owner to call the police.
7. The longer you stop to listen to someone’s sad story, the more likely you are to become a part of it.
8. If you follow all these rules and find yourself at knife/gunpoint anyway, hand over everything you have quickly and without looking at your attacker. Nobody wants to leave a witness.
After my first earthquake, I felt the need for a similar list, in “preparation” for the next one. I started asking local people for advice, which flowed like a fountain, because Taiwanese people love giving advice almost as much as they love to eat. When I first moved to Taiwan, I got lost at least four times a day, and there were no smart phones or GPS to guide me. If I asked for directions, people wanted so much to be helpful that even if they didn’t know, they would say something like: “Cross the street and… um… Do you see that convenience store? Go in there and ask them. Someone in there should know.” Playing along, I would thank them profusely and move on to my next target.
This is the list of suggestions I got for what to do in an earthquake:
1. From my landlord: Turn off the gas. Gas lines are fragile and can easily rupture and explode.
2. From an adult student: Open the front door first. If the building shifts, you might not be able to open it later.
3. From my Chinese teacher: Go into the bathroom; it’s the most stable room in the house.
4. From my bossiest friend: Prepare an earthquake kit with water, dry food, radio, battery, flashlight, raincoat, and towel. (Note: she admitted that she doesn’t have one herself.)
5. From my colleague during a particularly scary earthquake in the office: Stand in the doorway so nothing falls on you.
6. From my fitness trainer: My teacher always told us to hide under a table.
7. From my most sensible friend: Carry a bottle of water and a spare phone battery wherever you go.
8. From my friend Lisa, who experienced 921: If you have to leave the building, remember to wear shoes, because you may need to walk through rubble or broken glass.
I have no 921 story. I was still living in New York for both 921 and 9/11. On the morning of 9/11, I was running late, in a hurry to finish dressing and not listening to the news. I picked up the phone to let my friend know I was on my way, but there was no dial tone. Running down the front steps with wet hair and an open backpack, I saw construction workers standing in the middle of the street, staring at something. When I got to the corner, I saw flames shooting horizontally out of Tower 2. Tower 1 was obscured by a column of black smoke. The worker standing next to me was listening to a radio. He turned to me and said “Tower 1 just collapsed.” Numb, I went back to my apartment and turned on the TV. Watched footage of people jumping from the upper floors, pushed out by the extreme heat. Others running uptown, barefoot, covered in ash. In the days that followed, I saw dismembered parts and survivors pulled from the smoking crater of downtown Manhattan. If I had left the house on time that day, I might have been one of those people, who were trapped in the network of subway tunnels running under the World Trade Center. On autopilot, I answered calls from distant friends and relatives: Are you ok? What’s going on?
In the 921 scene from Gidden’s Ko’s coming-of-age movie You Are the Apple of My Eye, hundreds of students were thrown out of bed by the first jolt, running out of their dormitory into the uncertain dark. After the second jolt had passed, the students held their cell phones in the air, like fireflies, waving, searching for a signal. To reach their loved ones. To be reached by their loved ones. “All is forgiven. Where are you? Are you ok?” The main character climbed over his dormitory gates and ran around the campus until he found a signal, then called his ex-girlfriend. She answered immediately. “Wo meishi.” (I’m ok.) Even though they hadn’t spoken since their bitter, final argument, they were tender in this moment of almost-loss, teasing each other gently about their lingering, shared affection.
Last year, a 6.1 earthquake knocked me to the floor of my apartment and out of all sense. Clinging to the cabinets, while the loft bed creaked and swayed above my head, I crawled to my phone and called A-lun. She picked up the phone immediately. “Meishi” (It’s all right) she crooned softly, “Xiuxiu” — a Taiwanese word used to soothe frightened children, which just made me cry harder. I was sure that this was the moment that I would die alone, crushed under my loft, belonging nowhere and to no one. She repeated “meishi” and “xiuxiu” again and again. But her tone sharpened with impatience when my sobs continued for five full minutes after the shaking had stopped. “Stop crying. Stop! There’s nothing to cry about. It’s all over now.” And then it was.