Mother Nature again showed her temperamental side unleashing a devastating earthquake in Central Taiwan on September 21, 1999. It struck at 1.47am. Many of those killed were fast asleep. For them death came swiftly, perhaps mercifully. But for others trapped under debris, their nightmare was just the beginning.
It was barely 9am in Singapore the same day that Operation Lionheart was put on alert. By 5pm, the team complete with four rescue dogs was airborne. On arrival in Dali City, the contingent immediately started work in the dark, looking for survivors in a collapsed 12-storey building. It took only 45 minutes for them to rescue an eight-year-old boy from the debris.
Recalled Dart Captain Winston Chang: ‘He had been trapped for 30 hours. We saw only the boy's dust-covered face in the bathroom that looked like a war zone. Large slabs of broken concrete were precariously stacked around him. Removing a wrong piece could have triggered an avalanche of rubble burying the boy and the four of us.’
Shortly after the boy was pulled out of the building, an aftershock struck demolishing what was left of that room. ‘It sent a chill down our spines as we realised that we could all have been killed if we were just five minutes late.’
Several hours later, the team scored another success, rescuing a second victim. This time it was a man, who had been trapped in a collapsed five-storey golf clubhouse.
The pace of the rescue effort was unrelenting. Working side-by-side with Taiwanese rescue officers and hordes of ordinary civilians who pitched in to help, the searched continued round the clock.
The rescue mission lasted 20 days. Prior to their return to Singapore, the contingent even shared its knowledge with the local emergency authorities through seminars and exhibitions. The SCDF was the first overseas rescue team to arrive and the last to leave.