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A true scout: How Greek national led others to safety in Taroko Gorge

04/08/2024 10:50 PM
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Dimitris Belbas faces fallen rocks during their visit to Taroko National Park. Photo courtesy of Monica Tsai
Dimitris Belbas faces fallen rocks during their visit to Taroko National Park. Photo courtesy of Monica Tsai

Taipei, April 8 (CNA) Four days after a powerful earthquake rocked Taiwan, Dimitris Belbas, a Greek national who had been trapped on a trail in the hard-hit Taroko Gorge, sits in the lobby of a residential building in Taipei, occasionally glancing at a water bottle beside him.

"I keep checking the bottle to see if it's shaking," says the 50-year-old, who was trapped with his wife and mother-in-law on the gorge's Baiyang Trail due to landslides and fallen rocks caused by the magnitude 7.2 quake that struck off Taiwan's eastern coast on April 3.

At 7:58 a.m. when the earthquake first hit, the trio was inside one of the short tunnels near the end of the 2.1-kilometer trail, preparing to head back to the trail's entrance along the Central Cross-Island Highway and then to their hotel, Belbas said.

"It was as if we were in a war, a battle, lots of sand, lots of dust, explosions from the rocks, loud noises from the rocks falling," Belbas recalled.

Growing up in a country also prone to earthquakes, Belbas said he had been taught about being prepared for disasters since childhood, and he decided not to immediately leave the tunnel, as it offered a safer environment than hiking the outdoor sections of the trail.

Dimitris Belbas (right) and his wife are pictured during an interview with CNA Sunday evening. CNA photo April 8, 2024
Dimitris Belbas (right) and his wife are pictured during an interview with CNA Sunday evening. CNA photo April 8, 2024

After the initial shock, Belbas remembered there had been another group of three women walking near them.

"I went outside, and spotted them by an observation deck inside the dust, and I asked them to come to the tunnel because it was much safer," he said.

Soon after the earthquake, Belbas said his group had mobile phone service and was able to tell friends he was safe while finding out that the hotel had also survived the shake.

But about two and a half hours later, the group's connection lost, they headed back toward the trail entrance and found a family of five sheltered in another tunnel.

Now a group of 11, they realized that the trail beyond the tunnel was blocked by landslides and fallen rocks, leaving them trapped, without any way to communicate with the outside world to ask for help.

Their situation seemingly hopeless, the family of five shared the food they had in their backpacks with everyone, deeply moving Belbas.

"It was beautiful, so generous, so thoughtful, in this moment of crisis, we shared what we have," Belbas said, adding that they also had access to water because there was clean water shooting up from a spring in the mountain.

Recalling the time spent with the group, Belbas, who lives in Singapore but has visited Taiwan more than 40 times, was deeply impressed by the calm and patience shown by the 10 Taiwanese with him.

"Nobody started shouting, nobody was freaking out, nobody lost their composure."

Later in the afternoon, with the aftershocks gradually subsiding, Belbas heard a bird sing, interpreting it as a good sign: "If the birds are willing to sing, maybe Mother Nature is slowing down a little bit."

Backed by 20 years of scouting experience and intuition, he decided to try to find a way out by himself. He went to the spot where the trail was blocked by the landslide, carefully climbed up the pile of fallen debris, and made it to the other side.

Another 500 meters down the trail, Berbas had to climb over a very big rock that was blocking the way. He succeeded and continued walking before realizing he forgot to tell his wife that he had gone to look for a way out.

He returned to the tunnel and shared his findings with the group. After a discussion, they decided that apart from the family of five, which included three children, the other six individuals would follow Belbas' escape route.

Belbas said it would have been difficult to make it across the damaged part of the trail with a young child in hand, and he therefore promised the family that "we will come back and get you, and we will not leave you here."

Dimitris Belbas's wife Monica Tsai (left) and his mother-in-law pose for photo after they left the badly damaged trail in Hualien County. Photo courtesy of Charles Tsai April 8
Dimitris Belbas's wife Monica Tsai (left) and his mother-in-law pose for photo after they left the badly damaged trail in Hualien County. Photo courtesy of Charles Tsai April 8

None of the hikers were carrying gear that might have helped in the emergency they faced, but earlier in the day, Belbas had searched for materials that could help, and he found an old ladder and protective plastic bars behind a wooden platform on the trail.

Armed with those items to use as climbing aids and protective gear against direct hits from falling rocks, the group of six set out and eventually made it out of the trail and to the small town of Tianxiang around 600 meters away at around 4 p.m.

Belbas' wife headed straight to the police station to ask for help, and Belbas joined her after reporting to the rest of the family in the hotel that they were safe.

A small group comprising three policemen and one park ranger was quickly formed and headed to the trail with Belbas on motorcycles.

After crossing the large rock, Belbas took charge of setting up ropes to navigate the collapsed section and finally help free the family of five at around 6 p.m.

At this point in the interview with CNA, Belbas could not help but choke up: "They were very emotional, we were all very emotional [when we returned to them in the tunnel]. We hugged, we cried. This was not a place to celebrate. We were still in the mountain."

Despite being called a "Greek hero" by some media outlets after the rescue, Belbas did not particularly care for that title.

"I don't feel like a Greek hero. I feel more like a scout honoring my promise," he said.

Belbas mentioned that some of his decisions could be credited to the intuition cultivated through years of scout training. "You have to decide very quickly what you have to do, what is the best decision," he said.

Dimitris Belbas's father-in-law Charles Tsai. CNA photo April 8, 2024
Dimitris Belbas's father-in-law Charles Tsai. CNA photo April 8, 2024

Belbas's father-in-law, Taiwan's former representative to New Zealand Charles Tsai (蔡爾晄), said he had provided assistance to numerous Taiwanese in distress during his diplomatic tenure abroad, but he never anticipated that his wife, daughter and son-in-law would be trapped this time.

The retired diplomat expressed gratitude for their safe return, praising Belbas's courageous actions, and reiterating that the whole family was "so proud of him."

(By Sunny Lai)

Enditem/ls

Greek national Dimitris Belbas (back row, third right). Photo courtesy of the Seventh Special Police Corps April 7, 2024
Greek national Dimitris Belbas (back row, third right). Photo courtesy of the Seventh Special Police Corps April 7, 2024

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