The tragic crash of a Sunrise Airlines BK117 helicopter transporting supplies and Central Weather Bureau (CWB) personnel to the bureau’s Yushan Observation Station on Wednesday that killed all three people on board has thrown the spotlight on the hazardous working conditions employees face at the station.
The helicopter crashed 500m east of the Yushan station, which is 3,850m above sea level on the North Peak of Yushan (玉山), also known as Jade Mountain, killing pilot Chang Kuo-kang (張國綱), co-pilot Lin Yi-chi (林益淇) and bureau worker Chen Wen-chung (陳文忠).
“Working at weather stations in mountainous areas necessitates tolerance of the pain of being alone and away from your family for a long time,” CWB Forecast Center director Cheng Ming-dean (鄭明典) said.
It also requires physical strength and mental stamina, as workers have to stay at the stations for at least two consecutive months during winter, Cheng said, adding that the bureau often gives the head table at year-end banquets to these employees as a gesture of gratitude for the difficult work that they do.
Yushan weather station is the highest-altitude weather observation station in Northeast Asia and the temperature between day and night often varies significantly, station employees said, adding that the temperature averages about 15?C in summer and could drop as low as minus-12?C in winter.
They said they would not have been able to make it through the days when there were not even electricity and water supplies, if they had not trained their minds to “see suffering as taking vitamin supplements.”
Aside from inclement weather, the Yushan station relies on the outside world for daily necessities. Getting supplies to the station used to be a difficult task in the past, when the bureau had to hire Aboriginal workers to carry the supplies to the station from Yushan’s Tataka visitor center at an altitude of 2,600m.
“The route takes experienced hikers at least four hours to complete and amateurs may need twice as much time,” the employees said, adding that although the task is now being carried out by helicopters, it remains challenging.
“What we look forward to most at the station is the arrival of the helicopters, because it means we are getting new supplies and are going home,” they said. “However, the choppers often experience violent shakes as they hit turbulence.”
Adding to their hardship, the bureau’s decision to assign only three staff members to the Yushan station — a meteorological observer and two janitors — has left the facility constantly understaffed.
In addition to working 15 hours a day, from 5am to 8pm, the employees are also in charge of plumbing and electrical repairs and clearing snow. They are allowed to return home only after 15 consecutive days of work.
However, going home is no less painstaking than the job itself, as they have to first trek to the Tataka visitor center before they can drive down the mountain, so if they are feeling unwell or the weather is bad, they may end up spending their days off on the mountain.
Hsieh Hsin-tien (謝新添), who has worked at the station as a meteorological observer for two decades, said when the 921 Earthquake struck the nation in 1999, the tremor caused the mountain to shake so severely that it made a “deafening roar.”
“Since I had nowhere to hide, I figured I might as well organize the seismic data collected at the station and send it to the bureau for analysis,” Hsieh said.
However, the long work hours and high job demands do not translate into a remarkably high salary.
Sources said that Chen, a senior janitor at the station, was paid a monthly salary of about NT$50,000 (US$1,665) along with regional additional pay of NT$14,420, which is no better than what other civil servants working in remote areas receive.
Additional reporting by Tsai Tsung-hsun