Taiwan quake helps German vet discover meaning of volunteer work
By Lin Yu-li and Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter and writer
Nicole Gies was a 26-year-old veterinarian and a member of a German search and rescue team in 1999, when she received a call on Sept. 21 from the team, asking her to be part of a relief mission to Taiwan after a large earthquake devastated the country.
"It was my first ever mission overseas. My parents were extremely worried after learning that I was going," Gies told CNA in a recent interview.
Gies was one of 10 rescuers and eight dogs dispatched to Taiwan by the Bundesverband Rettungshunde e.V. or German Search and Rescue Dog Association, following the magnitude-7.3 temblor that struck Jiji Township in Nantou County, central Taiwan on Sept. 21, 1999.
The quake claimed more than 2,400 lives and left over 11,000 injured.
Gies said she and her dog had just passed the required tests to become rescuer and rescue dog when she received the call in 1999 and embarked on the mission to Taiwan.
Upon arrival, Gies and her team immediately went to work searching for survivors.
She remembered vividly seeing many families and friends of people waiting anxiously by collapsed buildings in the hope of receiving news about their loved ones, Gies said.
The team's mission lasted five days, and they rescued a woman from one of the collapsed buildings.
When her team left Taoyuan International Airport to return to Germany, people in the airport departure lobby gave them a big round of applause after learning they were here to rescue people, Gies recalled.
Twenty years later, Gies says her connection with Taiwan has only deepened as the 1999 mission heralded decades of friendship and collaboration between the German association and the Taiwanese.
In 2016, the association invited the National Fire Agency search and rescue team under Taiwan's interior ministry to undertake training in Germany.
The following year, the association sent German experts to Taiwan to train local rescue dogs and signed MOUs with Taichung City government and the interior ministry.
In 2018, the association opened its first overseas branch office at the international NGO center in Taichung to facilitate exchanges with Taiwanese counterparts and those in the Asia Pacific region.
The German Search and Rescue Dog Association, founded in 1976, is the oldest search and rescue dog organization in Germany and operates 82 units nationwide, with approximately 2,300 members.
All the rescuers in the association are volunteers and the organization is funded by private donations. Over the years, the association has trained more than 700 canines that have passed the search and rescue dog test.
Gies, who now lives in Hamm and works at a local zoo, told CNA that she continues to train her dog with association rescuers once a week to sharpen their skills.
She has visited Taiwan three times since 1999, and rescue dogs will be sent to Germany for training in September for the second time.
Gies relates how local officials told her that many Taiwanese go missing when mountain hiking, making mantrailing an extremely important skill for Taiwan rescue dogs.
With her help, a group of Taiwanese search and rescue dogs recently passed mantrailing skill tests in Germany, she said. Mantrailing is training a dog to follow an individual's scent trail by sniffing a personal item belonging to the person.
Gies has an album full of photos she took during the 1999 mission to Taiwan and a letter addressed to the rescue team members from then Taiwan Foreign Minister Jason Hu (胡志強) thanking them for their efforts.
Asked about the 1999 mission and what lessons she learned, Gies says the mission helped her discover the meaning of voluntary work and the crucial role played by rescue dogs in post-disaster work.
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