Quake hits southern Taiwan, leaves dozens trapped under collapsed building

Rescue personnel work at a damaged building. Photograph: Pichi Chuang/Reuters
Rescue personnel work at a damaged building. Photograph: Pichi Chuang/Reuters

Rescuers were fighting to reach 35 people trapped under a collapsed building with at least seven people dead and 150 hospitalised

A powerful earthquake in Taiwan has felled a 16-storey apartment complex full of families gathered for the lunar new year celebrations, with at least seven dead and more than 30 feared trapped.

The 6.4-magnitude quake struck in the early hours of Saturday and as day dawned it revealed the destruction left behind in the southern city of Tainan, which bore the brunt of the damage.

An entire residential complex of four buildings containing almost 100 homes toppled to the ground, lying on its side with twisted metal girders exposed and clouds of dust rising from the jumbled concrete.

A 10-day old baby girl and a 40-year-old man were pulled dead from the building, national fire agency officials said. Three other people died in the building with reports that around 30 more were still trapped inside.

A woman died after being hit by a falling water tank in another part of the city, the fire agency said, while falling debris also accounted for the seventh fatality.

Rescuers mounted hydraulic ladders and a crane to scour the ruins, plucking more than 220 survivors to safety, with 150 taken to hospital. About 400 troops have been mobilised to help the rescue effort.

Residents at the 16-storey Wei-kuan Building told of their terror as the quake hit, with survivors pulled bleeding and crying from the rubble, some just in their underwear.

“I saw buildings shake up and down and left and right,” said one resident.

“The first and second floor just collapsed and I smelt gas and water was leaking,” he told local channel SET TV.

Another man tied his clothes together to create a rope and lowered himself from his home on the ninth floor to the sixth floor below, Apple Daily reported.

The US Geological Survey recorded powerful tremors of 6.4 magnitude early on Saturday morning local time, following initial reports of a 6.7 magnitude earthquake.

The Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou, speaking to reporters in the capital before leaving for the scene, said authorities were not clear on the extent of the disaster.

“The disaster situation is not very clear yet. We will do our utmost to rescue and secure survivors,” Ma said.

Residents and media outlets in the area took to social media with mobile phone video clips of the aftermath, as fire crews tried to rescue people from wrecked buildings amid the sound of screaming and emergency vehicle sirens.

One elderly woman, wrapped in blankets, was strapped to a board and slowly slid down a ramp to the ground as the cries of those still trapped rang out. Rescuers used dogs and acoustic equipment to pick up weaker signs of life among the rubble.

The China Post newspaper said on its website: “Collapsed buildings reported in Tainan, with rescue workers arriving on scene. The city government there has set up a level one emergency response centre. Onlookers are urged not to block access to emergency crews moving into the area.”

Residents and reporters also posted pictures of huge buildings listing at precarious angles over the street.

The city of Kaohsiung, further south, was also affected.

The earthquake was a shallow one, occurring close to the land surface, which can be particularly destructive. But there has been no indication so far that it might result in a tsunami, the authorities said.

Taiwanese television reported there were hundreds of people in one of the buildings that collapsed in Tainan. “I hugged the wall and put my face to the wall,” Tainan resident Pao-feng Wu said.

The earthquake struck a few minutes before 4am local time in Taiwan and tremors were felt right across the island and as far north as the capital, Taipei, 200 miles away.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, flooding and power failures had affected the worst hit south-western area and authorities scrambled to reach residents.

City officials said it was too early to determine if poor construction was a factor in the collapse. Liu Shih-chung, city government deputy secretary general, said television footage of the ruins of the commercial-residential building suggested the possibility of structural problems related to poor-quality reinforced steel and cement.

The construction and engineering companies that built the complex were no longer operating, records showed.

Taiwan lies near the junction of two tectonic plates and is regularly hit by earthquakes. A 6.3-magnitude quake which hit central Taiwan in June 2013 killed four people and caused widespread landslides.

A 7.6-magnitude quake struck the island in September 1999 and killed about 2,400 people.

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