"I was struck by the kindness and genuine concern of the Taiwanese people."
The week that just passed was quite trying for us Filipinos here in Taiwan. It started with a rainy weekend, and on Sunday, the government announced that work was suspended for Monday, 30 September due to the expected heavy rain and strong winds that Mitag, a powerful tropical storm, would bring.
But the whole day of Sunday was not as rainy as predicted, and for a few hours in the morning, the sun even shone, allowing me to take a leisurely walk in a nearby park. The crazy weather got me nursing a bad cold. By dinner time, however, the rains came, along with strong winds. And by half past ten Monday night, the winds started howling until perhaps two the following morning.
By the time I got to office on Tuesday the sixth, the news about the cable-suspended bridge in Nanfangao port in Yilan County, about a two-hour ride northeast from central Taipei, reached us. Several Filipinos were reportedly injured and brought to nearby hospitals for treatment.
Our Assistance to Nationals section at MECO, along with the welfare officer of OWWA rushed to Yilan. The welfare officer, Dayang-Dayang Sitti Jaafar, went straight to the hospitals, while our ATN staff led by Nestor Mayo and Michael So went to ground zero.
While Welof Jaafar was quite relieved to see that four out of five hospitalized Filipinos suffered only superficial wounds, while another had a fracture and some body wounds and therefore out of danger, our ATN staff reported that the collapsed bridge pinned down a fishing vessel where three Filipinos and another three Indonesians were trapped.
The bridge collapsed at 9:30 in the morning, and by noon, the rescuing divers from the Taiwan fire department and port authority could still hear rapping sounds from the sunken vessel, giving us hope that the trapped fishermen could be rescued alive.
In the afternoon, no less than Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited ground zero as well as the hospitals where the wounded were taken. Sympathizing with them, she handed out some financial assistance in sealed envelopes to the wounded. Meanwhile too, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called me to extend their sympathies and offering to assist the concerned families through MECO.
But it took quite some time to extricate the bodies from the vessel which was cut in half and pinned down by the heavy concrete bridge. By midnight Tuesday, one Filipino and two Indonesians were recovered, but they were dead. Imagine being trapped for 15 hours inside a sunken vessel.
By four at dawn of Wednesday morning, another Filipino body was recovered, leaving one other unaccounted four. Meanwhile, the other fishermen working in the sunken vessel lost all their belongings. The Filipino community in Yilan immediately got together to donate clothing and other personal effects, and the overseas labor office under our Labor Attache, Atty. Cesar Chavez got in touch with the employment brokers to ensure that the affected workers would get their benefits, as well as find jobs elsewhere.
Aid started pouring in from all sectors, whether government or charitable foundations such as TzuChi Foundation and the Taiwan Red Cross. Even the chairman of Foxconn, the electronics giant, donated 10 million Taiwan dollars to speed up the rescue effort, and another attached firm, Sharp, gave an additional 1 million.
It took another day before the rest of the sunken vessel was opened up and the third Filipino fisherman’s body retrieved. His brother-in-law, also an OFW in Taiwan, was present when the body was fished out.
The Executive Yuan (Taiwan cabinet) directed the Taiwan International Ports Corporation, a GOCC similar to our port authority in the Philippines, to donate 5 million Taiwan dollars to each of the families of the deceased. But as it would take some time to effect this, the TIPC immediately handed out 55,000 dollars to the next of kin, two of which had arrived in Taiwan by Friday.
Even as our MECO office in Makati had arranged for the flight of the next of kin of the two who were earlier retrieved, and made arrangements for the last, whose next of kin did not have a passport yet, to fly into Taiwan. The resident representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Manila got in touch with me to say that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was offering to shoulder flight and travel accommodations of the next of kin.
I thanked them for the kind offer but said that we had already made such arrangements.
Meanwhile, both Buddhist monks and Catholic priests offered prayer ceremonies and masses in different sites for the victims of the tragedy. On Thursday night, a mass was offered at St. Christopher’s in Zhongshan district in Taipei City, attended by many Filipino community members to pray for the unfortunate kababayans.
Even as MECO was holding a tourism investment forum at the Grand Hyatt Thursday and business-matching meetings on Friday, we received expressions of sympathy from Taiwanese businessmen and even the doormen at the hotel. The spontaneous expressions of sympathy touched us.
Through all of the trying moments, one thing that struck me, and will forever be enshrined in my heart is the kindness and genuine concern of the Taiwanese people for humanity, from the wife of the fishing vessel owner who was profusely crying when the first Filipino body was retrieved, telling all how these employees were like family to them, to solicitous officials of the government who offered immediate assistance, to ordinary Taiwanese who expressed genuine sympathy.
There was also the Filipino community in Taiwan as well, particularly in Yilan, who gathered together to assist the victims, and later condole with the arriving next of kin, our admiration for the show of unity and the bayanihan spirit.
Indeed in times like these, the bonds of friendship and love of fellows in the human community enrich the soul.