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How 2 Canadians fought to survive the Taiwan earthquake | CBC News

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A week after an earthquake in Taiwan killed 13 people and injured more than 1,000, a Canadian couple are nursing their injuries and recounting their own tale of survival.

Lelia Lemay of Montreal and her boyfriend Brandon Iwanyshyn of Edmonton were hiking April 3 in the Taroko Gorge, in a national park on the eastern part of the island, when the magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck.

It should have been a magical week of vacation for the couple who work at an international school in Dalian, China.

Taroko National Park, a popular hiking destination about 25 kilometres northwest of the hard-hit city of Hualien, had been the perfect setting to celebrate Lemay’s 34th birthday on April 4.

‘A perfect day’

The couple set out early, at 7:15 a.m., to beat the arrival of tourist buses on what Lemay said was “a perfect day.”

“The gorge was turquoise; the sky was blue,” she told Radio-Canada in French Tuesday, in a video interview from a Hualien hospital.

At 7:58 a.m., as they hiked alone, the ground suddenly began to shake, triggering landslides all around them. Both were hit by falling rocks.

Lemay recalls falling to the ground from the impact and trying to protect her head.

“I just said to myself: ‘There you go, it’s April 3rd. Tomorrow I’m supposed to turn 34 but I won’t. It all ends now.'”

In a state of shock, the couple ran to take cover near a mini-power plant. They tried to get in, but it was locked.

“The last thing I remember is us being on all fours and trying to protect ourselves,” said Iwanyshyn, who did his interview in English. “We hid behind this little wall.” 

Lelia Lemay of Montreal and her boyfriend Brandon Iwanyshyn of Edmonton sheltered from falling rocks by huddling near this building in Toroko Gorge in eastern Taiwan. (Submitted by Brandon Iwanyshyn)

Struggling on through serious injuries

Both were seriously injured. Lemay had numerous cuts and would later learn she had fractured vertebrae. Brandon suffered a compound fracture to his skull and broke his foot.

“Brandon told me, ‘I’m OK…. I’m fine.'” Lemay said. “But I had seen his cut; I knew it wasn’t fine. I didn’t want us to spend the night.”

With almost no food or water and constant aftershocks, they decided it was best to keep moving. They were helped by the fact that Iwanyshyn had kept notes, tracking time and travel co-ordinates.

A woman with several facial injuries in a neck brace.
Lemay suffered fractured vertebrae after being hit by falling rocks. (Submitted by Brandon Iwanyshyn)

“We knew that both of us had injuries, but we said to ourselves: Can we walk? Yes. So let’s do it.”

They provided their loved ones with their locations before losing cell reception, then decided to follow the river out, as the rocks didn’t seem to reach it, Iwanyshyn said. They eventually arrived at a spot on the trail that normally sells food and souvenirs and found 10 other survivors.

“Seeing those people was like Christmas morning,” he said.

Aftershocks trigger panic

All 12 hikers were taken to Tzu Chi Hospital in Hualien. The couple will stay there for at least nine more days to recover from surgery.

Lelia has to wear a cervical collar and Brandon’s now-shaven head has a huge gash held together with stitches.

There are also emotional scars. Each aftershock, more than 700 recorded over the past week, sows panic.

The first large aftershock at the hospital triggered what Lemay believes was a panic attack. After big aftershocks, a nurse knocks on their door to ask if they are OK.

“For us, in Taroko Gorge, every aftershock meant we had to be careful because rocks were falling,” said Lemay. “I think that this feeling of not being in panic mode, but on extra alert, is difficult to get rid of.”

Lemay said they are taking their injuries day by day and will focus on rest.

The kindness of strangers

The couple are extremely grateful to the people that helped them in their ordeal: friends and family and co-workers, as well as those they’ve met post-quake, including emergency responders and hospital staff.

The couple also say they are impressed by the help they got from the Canadian consulate in Taipei. A representative has visited them almost every day at the hospital.

A man with a head injury makes the peace sign at the camera.
Iwanyshyn, pictured, and Lemay were effusive with praise for all the people that have helped them since the earthquake. (Submitted by Brandon Iwanyshyn)

One stranger they met at the hospital saw that Lemay was in pain, took her hand and stroked her hair.

“She found out it was my birthday, then came back with a cake and a birthday card. It was just incredible, the kindness of people, of strangers.”

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