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Who's to Blame for Taiwan's Toppled Highrise?

The discovery of tin cans used as “filler” raises questions about the apartment complex’s construction.

Soldiers stand guard in front of 17-storey apartment building collapsed after an earthquake, on the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year at Tainan, southern Taiwan. (Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

What was supposed to be a weekend of New Year festivities in Taiwan has turned into days of mourning. In the aftermath of the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck the city of Tainan Saturday, hundreds have been rescued from collapsed buildings, and at least 38 have been killed. More than 100 people remain missing.

The largest number of casualties have been linked to a toppled 17-story apartment complex where at least 24 people have been killed, including a 10-day-old infant girl who was among the first deaths reported. And it turns out that long before the two-decade-old highrise crumbled, local residents had their doubts about its structural integrity.

The Weiguan Golden Dragon Building, with roughly 200 housing units, was one of 11 buildings badly damaged in the disaster. But according to CNN, it was the only high rise to completely topple over. "The building essentially collapsed onto itself," NPR correspondent Elise Hu, who was in Tainan, told CNN. "When you see the aerial images around Tainan, the rest of the buildings are standing. But this particular apartment complex is as damaged as it is."

The 17-story apartment complex completely toppled during this weekend’s earthquake while nearby buildings remain standing. (Reuters/Xinhua)

While searching through the damage for survivors, rescue crews found empty blue and white tin cans that had apparently been used as construction filler inside some of the building’s concrete beams. The discovery prompted the Taiwanese government and local officials to launch separate investigations into whether shortcuts were taken in the construction of the complex.

According to one engineer who spoke to the Central News Agency, it wasn’t uncommon—or illegal—back in the 1980s and ‘90s for developers to use empty cooking oil cans as construction filler. Local residents have been quick to place the blame on the shoddy construction.

“I told my son not to buy an apartment here; it was suspiciously cheap,” a man in his 60s who was able to escape the building told AP. His two grandsons remained trapped on the ninth floor at the time of the interview and his daughter-in-law is reportedly in serious condition.

The two firms that built the high rise in 1983Wei-guan Construction and Da Hsin Engineering—have both since gone out of business, reports Reuters. But the government is still hoping to hold someone accountable for the dozens of deaths.

For one couple, getting a loan rejection from the first bank they approached when trying to buy an apartment at the Golden Dragon Building might have hinted at the tragedy. The bank, according to Reuters, had a policy of refusing loans to residents of the building because of its poor construction. The couple, Chen Yi-ting and Lin Wu-chong, eventually found another lender.

This weekend, the building collapse landed the couple in two different hospitals—Chen with a cracked skull and Lin with damaged lungs. Their 7-year-old daughter was killed in the disaster.

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