11 killed, hundreds injured, buildings damaged in Taiwan earthquake

Taiwan earthquake

TAIPEI/BEIJING: A powerful 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck southern Taiwan early on Saturday morning, just two days ahead of the traditional lunar New Year, damaged several buildings, causing the collapse of at least eight and leaving at least 11 people, including a new-born infant, dead, according to the island’s disaster response authorities.

More than 170 people are still unaccounted for.

In the historic city of Tainan, which bore the brunt of the earthquake, eight buildings collapsed and another five were partially damaged. Altogether, rescuers had evacuated 240 people from the quake zone and rushed them to the hospitals.

According to the China Earthquake Networks Center, the 6.7-magnitude quake hit Kaohsiung city at 3:57 a.m. Beijing local time on Saturday. The epicenter was measured at a depth of 15 kilometers. Local monitoring authorities put the scale of the quake at 6.4-magnitude.

Taiwan’s earthquake monitoring center put the scale of the quake at 6.4-magnitude, saying it was centered about 27 km northeast of Pingtung county seat.

A 10-day old baby girl and a 40-year-old man were pulled dead from the building; National Fire Agency officials said, with reports that around 30 more were still trapped inside. A third woman died after being hit by a falling water tank at another site with no details immediately available of the other two deaths, the fire agency said.

Some 240 people had been rescued from the collapsed 17-storey Wei Guan building in Yongkang district of Tainan, said the city’s disaster response center.

The Wei Guan building, left on its side with twisted metal girders exposed, was said to be home to 256 people in 92 households.

According to the initial investigation, a total of 256 people were registered as living inside the high-rise in 92 households.

Interior Minister Chen Wei-Jen said he feared there may be more people in the building than usual as family members would have returned to celebrate the Lunar New Year holidays next week.

“Exactly how many people were there when the quake hit was not immediately clear,” said Chen. “We are concerned that most members of those families may have returned for the coming new year holiday.”

Firefighters and soldiers used ladders, excavators and other equipment to pull survivors out of rubble and through twisted windows. By 1:20 p.m., 246 people had been evacuated or pulled out by rescuers.

Social volunteers nearby are helping locals unreachable relatives.

So far, 172 people, including 120 adults and 52 children, are still unaccounted for.

Rescuers on site said they could still hear calls for help from inside the collapsed building, but have to consolidate the collapsed building parts first before saving the rest.

They were also not sure exactly how many people were still trapped under the debris, fearing there may be more people in the building than usual as families may have housed guests to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday next week.

A survivor who had just been rescued when a Xinhua reporter arrived at the scene was conscious on a stretcher. After rescuers asked him about the locations of other people trapped, he was rushed to a medical station for further treatment.

“It was horrible! No way to celebrate our new year,” a resident of the Wei Guan building who gave his surname as Pan told Xinhua.

A lady surnamed Cheng said her brother, sister-in-law and their two daughters were still trapped.

“Their mobile phones are disconnected,” she said. “Their landline rings but no one answers.”

Apart from firefighters, the island has dispatched about 850 soldiers for the rescue, said Chen Wei-zen, head of the island’s interior affairs authority, at a press conference in the morning.

Tainan is the main focus of their rescue efforts, according to Chen.

Authorities will need to find places to accommodate a large number of displaced residents, with freezing weather complicating the situation.

Chen said the government will invite nearby hotels, temples, barracks and schools to meet the demand.

The Chinese mainland has offered to help Taiwan following the quake.

While addressing a Chinese New Year gathering on Saturday morning, Premier Li Keqiang sent condolences to the victims of the disaster.

The mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) had been in contact with Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) since 6 a.m., around two hours after the quake. The ARATS sent a letter to the SEF offering rescue assistance if needed.

The State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office meanwhile said the mainland is ready to provide all necessary assistance in quake relief. Office head Zhang Zhijun said so far no mainland tourists in Taiwan have been affected in the quake.

The mainland’s Red Cross Society has offered 2 million yuan (304,268 U.S. dollars) of disaster relief funds to Taiwan.

Earthquakes frequently hit Taiwan. Most of them are minor, but a 7.3-magnitude quake, the strongest to hit Taiwan in about 100 years, shook the island on Sept. 21, 1999, leaving more than 2,000 people dead.

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