By Hannah Hornsby, Special to The Wild East
Friends and family claim Taiwan police, search-and-rescue operations were negligent after failing to use critical information to find a hiker who spent nearly two months lost on Baigu Mountain
Many in Taiwan have seen the recent news regarding Rudy Zhang’s (張博崴) disappearance on Baigu Mountain (白姑大山). This story is extremely personal to me, because Rudy was my friend, my student, and son of my employer (with whom I am also close). I know Rudy’s father, and am friends with his sister.
Since his Feb. 28th disappearance, I’ve witnessed first-hand and on a daily basis the emotional turmoil this incident has caused his family, as his mother looked for answers, his father relocated near the mountain, and his sister, friends, and family members prayed for his safety. It’s been a truly heartbreaking and stressful time for anyone who knows Rudy or his family, and a tragedy in the deepest sense of its meaning.
Emotions aside, however, Rudy’s death highlights several serious issues in Taiwan, most importantly the lack of properly trained search and rescue teams, the inability of government to mobilize rescue personnel, and a general lack of delegation and organization within these services. Certainly many individuals must have cared about finding Rudy, but the facts of the incident show the overall incompetence and inability to orchestrate an effective search and rescue in Taiwan, highlighting the need for authorities to be ready and willing in future to undertake responsibility when the situation calls for it.
Negligence on behalf of the police is obvious when one considers the following information:
1) Rudy was given a permit to hike alone in an area known to be dangerous. In fact, approximately 2,000 people have got lost, died, or injured in this area. When questioned as to why a lone hiker would be given such a permit, the official response was that Rudy “insisted” on going. Does this mean that any individual can undertake dangerous actions just because they want to? Why would POLICE, of all people, break such a regulation?
2) Police and rescue workers searched for a combined total of 49 days, and when they wanted to stop, the family paid police NT$130,000 dollars (about US$4300) to continue the search. They looked, however, only along existing mountain trails, disregarding the fact that Rudy’s girlfriend — the last person he spoke with and told he was lost before his cellphone was cut off a half-hour later — repeatedly said she’d heard running water in the background and believed he was near a river. It seems obvious that someone who is lost will not be found on a marked trail, so why were rescuers searching this confined area? And why was the girlfriend’s report completely disregarded?
3) Huang Kao Su (黃國書), an experienced hiker known for assisting in rescue efforts and his ability to hike in dangerous areas, was able to find Rudy’s body in less than two days — approx. 7 hours of searching. He stated that Rudy had left clear signs such as broken branches to mark his path, footprints, and so on, and was in an area that was “to be expected” given where he’d been hiking. He also commented that Rudy was a very intelligent hiker, and had followed the textbook guidelines for someone in his situation. How is it that this man (with one companion) was able to accomplish the task in such a short amount of time, when almost 600 other rescue workers were stumped for weeks? Why are police, the public’s first resource in times of need, so unable to complete a task that one person, Huang, was able to do, in 7 hours? Do police need training in this area? If so, why haven’t they received it before? And what can be done to implement such training in the future?
4) Police failed to access Rudy’s cellphone records, a sure-fire means of locating him. When his family requested they do so, police stated Rudy’s ‘right to privacy’ as their chief concern, and even went so far as to speculate that Rudy may be hiding after an argument with his girlfriend. Rather than use key information they had to find him, police chose to err on the side of personal privacy, even though Rudy clearly told his girlfriend he was lost. Here, valuable rescue time was lost in debating a non-issue. Why didn’t police choose to err on the side of safety instead, and believe that Rudy was missing? If it had turned out he was indeed hiding, then his family would have been charged for misuse of police resources. So why assume Rudy is NOT in need of assistance first… unless perhaps you just don’t want to do your job?
Since media began reporting this incident, several key points have been misrepresented. Articles have erroneously claimed that Rudy was found by inexperienced hikers, or “luck,” or that his remains were bones by the time he was found. This is completely untrue; his estimated time of death was only 5-6 days before his body was located, and his mother said he was in “good condition”. Does no one check their facts anymore?
The media’s primary focus, at this point, seems to be ‘who’s to blame?’ Taipei police blame the Taichung police, Taichung police blame the Taipei police, military officers blame weather conditions for having had to call off the day’s search a few times, and the most recent articles to circulate blame ghosts and spirits in the area. This, however, does very little to actually solve the problem.
One recent article I read suggested that in the future maps should be sectioned off and each section assigned to a particular person. It’s been stated that the people doing the search were being paid regardless of the outcome, and had no emotional investment either way. This would give individuals motivation to actually search their assigned area. While this is one approach, I think the primary focus still needs to be on education. Clearly, if rescuers were informed about what signs to look for, Rudy might have been saved. In a country with so many mountains and a ‘hiking culture’, properly training search and rescue teams is one critical solution.
Another particularly troubling issue was what happened once Rudy’s body was found. When asked about retrieving it, police told Rudy’s mother that it was “not their responsibility.” They told the family to find and hire a team of people to retrieve him by themselves. Rudy’s mother replied, “What would happen if I was poor? Would you leave him on the mountain?” After performing such an incompetent search that left Rudy to die a slow death alone, and taking the family’s money, how could police be so callous as to not want to support the family in this wish, and prove that they did, indeed, care about the outcome of this tragedy? Taiwan has a strong ‘ghost culture’, and without a proper burial ghosts are believed not to be at rest. Leaving his body on the mountain certainly causes the family emotional distress, let alone poses a potential health hazard, and is a completely disrespectful response, on many levels. Being able to give Rudy a proper burial was the last comfort the family could receive in this particular situation, so why deny them even this last assistance? This again raises the issue of who in fact is responsible for what duties and responsibilities.
Rudy survived 44 – 45 days on his own on that mountain, long after police (and even family members) had believed he was capable of surviving. It is a truly tragic situation that needs to be addressed. Changes to the way police approach such a situation, their sensitivity toward the family, and their actual ability to perform tasks that are assigned to them need to undertaken. Nothing will bring Rudy back, but his death need not be in vain if we can learn from it and prevent such an awful situation from ever occurring again.