In the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 21, 1999, I was awakened three times by the creaking of the walls and doors of my bedroom and the swaying and undulation of my bed. Although I knew that this shaking was caused by earthquakes, I did not yet realize that what I had experienced that night was one of Taiwan’s biggest earthquakes of the century.
For twenty hours after the earthquake, I was unable to receive any news because there was a power outage throughout most of Taiwan. So I had no idea of the extent of the damage or the death toll from the earthquake.
Later, when I was able to switch on my television, I saw scenes that I will never forget. The news showed building after building that was collapsed or heavily damages, as well as bodies buried under the rubble.
Rescue workers risked their lives going in and out of the buildings, trying to save as many people as possible. Some survivors dug through the debris, looking for signs of loved ones, hoping that they were still alive. Others risked their lives just to salvage some of their personal belongings. Children looked for their parents in the chaos. People gave accounts of how roofs and walls came tumbling down, crushing family members, and how they could do nothing to help them.
These scenes were heartbreaking. Every night, as I watched the television updates, I ended up with tears in my eyes. So many children became orphans when their parents were killed in the earthquake. Some children faced amputation because their legs were trapped under concrete walls or pillars. Too young to understand that they had lost their parents, they called for Mommy and Daddy to comfort them in their great pain.
There were also the elderly who lost all their children and grandchildren in one night, becoming the sole survivors of their families. When they realized that they had no home to go back to, no food to eat, and no children or grandchildren to love, they lost their will to live.
Although I had seen similar scenes of other earthquakes (such as the one in Turkey that had occurred just one month earlier), I had never felt such horror, pain, and sympathy toward the victims as I did this time. Since I had experienced this earthquake myself, my feelings were much stronger. I felt very happy every time someone was rescued, and I felt sad when the rescue workers carried out another dead body. I cried whenever I saw someone weeping because his or her loved ones were dead. I cried when a teenager read her poem for her dead parents, expressing her love for them, her loss, and how she would remain strong for her grandfather and younger brother.
How many of us have wished that our parents would stop nagging us, that they were less strict, or that we could live separately from them so that we could do whatever we liked? This earthquake made me realize how blessed I am to still have my parents who love me, and whom I can love. I still have a mother who, when I am sick, will make long distance calls to make sure that I take care of myself and eat well. I still have my parents who were so worried about my safety during the earthquake that they wanted me to return home immediately. But those orphaned kids will no longer have this luxury.
God's Mercy and Grace
Despite the destruction, I also heard evidence of God’s mercy and grace among our fellow believers. For instance, during the earthquake, one couple was trapped inside their house because it was shaking so violently that they could not make it out the door. They then decided to hold on to each other tightly, thinking that if they were going to die, they wanted to die together. Miraculously, an unknown force brought them out of their house and into the open space. When they discovered that they were outside, they knew immediately that it was by the grace of God.
In another instance, a preacher and his family were unable to leave their house. The earthquake had damaged the door and they were unable to open it. Not knowing what else to do, the whole family knelt down to pray. While they were praying there was an aftershock, and the damaged door suddenly returned to its original shape! They quickly opened the door and ran to safety. The Lord had answered their prayers.
On Tuesday evening, service was held as usual at the church. There were more attendees than usual that night, because the earthquake had awakened some members and brought them back to the Lord.
During the service, the electrical power went off just as a brother was giving his testimony of how the Lord had chastised him. Although he then had to give his testimony in the dark, everybody sat quietly, listening. Even the children sat through the service without making as much noise as usual. Although nothing extraordinary happened, somehow I felt that this was a great service. It was a feeling I could not explain, but I felt as though I had just experienced a miracle.
Later that week, during the Sabbath service, the preacher gave an account of what he saw when he rushed to Tai Chung after the earthquake. He had difficulty getting there, because the highway was jammed with anxious people rushing to search for their family members. Finally, he got a motorcyclist to take him to his destination. They had to travel carefully because it was very dark and they could not see the road conditions. The familiar road that used to be flat had now become uneven. In the middle of a long stretch of flat highway, there was a one-meter-high bump caused by the shifting plates of the earthquake.
Despite the road conditions, the preacher managed to reach his destination and find the students and church members he was looking for. They were all safe and well, resting in temporary tents because their homes had either collapsed or were too damaged to stay in. Yet he also saw something more: behind the tents were rows of bodies covered with yellow or white cloth. All of the mortuaries had either been destroyed by the earthquake or were already too full. There were simply too many bodies.
Faith in the Face of Adversity
After the Sabbath service, as I was watching news updates on the rescue work, I saw a report on a group of tribal people still trapped in the mountains. They were worshiping under a temporary tent made of a plastic sheet tied to four wooden poles. As I watched them singing hymns and praying in tongues, I realized that they were True Jesus Church members! Despite their plight, they had not forgotten to keep the Sabbath.
After watching this scene, I felt so ashamed. My Sabbath service that day had been held in a well-lit, air-conditioned building with proper benches. Yet even in this comfort, I had in a few instances fallen asleep. I thought of how I had considered skipping the Sabbath service because I was so tired. Yet these tribal members kept the Sabbath despite the earthquake, which had killed some of their loved ones and devastated their lives.
The September 1999 earthquake in Taiwan shows how small and powerless we humans are when faced with the work of God and the wrath of nature. Humans can fly to the moon, explore the depths of the ocean, and predict when a typhoon will occur. But today, we still cannot predict when and where an earthquake will strike.
Revelation 16:18 states "...and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth." If the earthquake in Taiwan caused such great devastation, we can only wonder what this last "great earthquake" will be like.
Still, whatever disaster may befall us, let us remember and take comfort in David’s timeless words:
The Lord is my rock and my fortress
and my deliverer;
The God of my strength, in whom I will trust;
My shield and the horn of my salvation,
My stronghold and my refuge;
My Savior... (2 Sam 22:2-3)