Twenty years ago, Turkish newspaper Star Gazetesi featured a photograph that showed several Turkish rescue workers in orange uniforms, with one of them presenting a bouquet of flowers to a middle-aged Taiwanese woman lying in bed and covered with a quilt.
The Chinese characters on the quilt read “Changhua Christian Hospital,” which was in an area devastated by the 921 Earthquake. The 1999 quake claimed more than 2,400 lives.
Next to the photo was a picture of a handwritten note from the woman, which said: “If I could stand, I would bow to you with deep gratitude.”
The woman in the photo is Liao Su-ying (廖素英), who lived in the high-rise Lungpang Fukuei Mingmen Apartments, which collapsed when the earthquake struck 20 years ago yesterday.
Thirty-six Turkish rescue workers arrived in Taiwan shortly after the quake and were dispatched to central Taiwan, where they searched for people in the rubble of the building.
The building was severely damaged and it was too dangerous for rescuers to enter, so it took almost two days to locate and rescue Liao.
Dozens of Liao’s neighbors lost their lives that day and Liao, trapped beneath the debris for what must have seemed like an eternity, was also close to perishing.
“When we explained to her that she was going to be rescued, she was reluctant,” said Caglar Akgungor, one of the Turkish rescue workers, describing the moment they located Liao, 45 hours after the quake.
“She said according to her belief, it was her destiny to stay there and die,” Akgungor said.
Despite initially refusing to be rescued, Liao was eventually moved by the efforts of the Turkish rescuers to save her.
“I don’t know who, but someone told her that it was also her destiny that we came all the way from Istanbul, Turkey, to save her,” Akgungor said, probably referring to a Taiwanese rescue worker who was at the site.
Liao was put on intravenous medication on site and extracted five hours after being found.
Although Liao declined requests for an interview, Emre Ayan, another Turkish rescuer, said he still remembers visiting her at the hospital.
“It was quite a touching moment,” Ayan said. “We entered the collapsed building in search of survivors and we found one.”
Akgungor, Ayan and 15 other Turkish rescuers were members of the Akut Association, a Turkish group founded in 1996 that now has more than 2,200 members.
The organization’s name is an abbreviation of the Turkish words arama (search) and kurtarma (rescue). It responds whenever it can after major earthquakes, floods, cave incidents or when people are lost on mountains at home and abroad.
In 2011, Akut became a member of the UN’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, a network of countries and organizations dedicated to global search and rescue coordination.
Its volunteers often face life-threatening situations.
“I remember there was a wall next to our camp and it was shaking all the time and about to collapse,” Ayan said about their time in Taiwan.
“When I was sleeping in the camp, there was an aftershock, a really strong aftershock,” Ayan said. “I was thinking: Oh, my god, I hope the wall doesn’t collapse on me.”
However, the threat of earthquakes is also psychological. Before coming to Taiwan in late September 1999, Akut had conducted operations after an earthquake in Marmara, Turkey, a month earlier and an Athens earthquake another month earlier.
Witnessing the devastation left by multiple earthquakes in a three-month span caused mental exhaustion among rescuers.
“Looking back, I remember I felt pretty much traumatized,” Akgungor said. “For a time in 1999, we all felt like there was going to be a continuous storm of earthquakes in the world.”
Despite the ordeal of those missions, the rescuers remained true to their task.
“You use so many resources to reach somebody,” said Cilasun Bayulgen, another Akut worker who responded to the 921 Earthquake.
“We came all the way from Turkey and it was not for nothing,” Akgungor said. “Even if it is one person, one life that was saved, it’s worth it.”
Instead of dwelling on the horrific aftermath of disasters, the Akut workers look on the bright side and cherish the bonds made with people they meet.
Holding an expired passport carefully in his hand, Bayulgen, now a middle-aged man, said the 1999 entry stamp to Taiwan reminds him of his good memories with people here 20 years ago.
It was at the rescue camp in Taiwan that Bayulgen had his first cup of green tea, which was given to him by a Taiwanese man, even though they could not speak the same language.
“He was just smiling at us, sharing the tea,” Bayulgen said. “That was all for me.”
Ayan said he was also grateful to the Taiwanese who took care of him and made sure he had no problems with food or accommodation.
“If there is a good side to the disaster, it is that it brought the two countries closer together,” Ayan said. “I am sure that when we need help, Taiwanese will come and help us.”
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