Nine dead as Taiwan hit by strongest quake in 25 years

Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee |

A strong earthquake of 7.2 magnitude has struck off Taiwan.
A strong earthquake of 7.2 magnitude has struck off Taiwan.

Taiwan’s biggest earthquake in at least 25 years has killed nine people, injured more than 800 and trapped dozens more in tunnels and collapsed buildings, authorities say, as rescuers use ladders to help some people descend to safety.

Television broadcast images of buildings tilted at precarious angles in the mountainous, sparsely populated eastern county of Hualien, near the epicentre of the 7.2 magnitude quake, which struck just offshore at about 8am on Wednesday (0000GMT).

“It was very strong,” said Chang Yu-lin, 60, a worker in a hospital in Taipei, the capital.

“It felt as if the house was going to topple.”

The quake hit at a depth of 15.5 km as people were headed for work and school, setting off a tsunami warning for southern Japan and the Philippines that was later lifted.

Video showed rescuers using ladders to help trapped people out of windows, while elsewhere there were massive landslides, as strong tremors in Taipei forced the subway system to close briefly, although most lines resumed service.

Fire authorities said they were slowly evacuating some of those trapped in tunnels near Hualien city, including two Germans.

But they had lost contact with 50 travellers aboard four mini buses heading to a hotel in a national park, Taroko Gorge, they said, without giving details.

The government put the number of injured at 821.

“At present the most important thing, the top priority, is to rescue people,” said President-elect Lai Ching-te, speaking outside one of the collapsed buildings in Hualien.

Taiwan earthquake
Taiwan’s strongest earthquake in 25 years has killed at least nine people and damaged buildings. (AP PHOTO)

The rail link to the area was expected to re-open on Thursday, Lai, who is set to take office in April told reporters.

Taiwan’s air force said six F-16 fighter jets had been slightly damaged at a major base in the city from which jets are often scrambled to see off incursions by China’s air force, but the aircraft were expected to return to service soon.

In Japan, the weather agency put the quake’s magnitude at 7.7, saying several small tsunami waves reached parts of the southern prefecture of Okinawa while downgrading its tsunami warning to an advisory.

In the Philippines, seismology officials warned coastal residents in several provinces telling them to move to higher ground.

Chinese state media said the quake was felt in the southeast province of Fujian, while a Reuters witness said it was also felt in the commercial hub of Shanghai.

Aftershocks could still be felt in Taipei, with more than 50 recorded, weather officials said.

Most power has been restored after the quake, electricity utility Taipower said, with the island’s two nuclear power stations unaffected.

Taiwan quake
The powerful quake struck at a depth of 15.5km as people were going to work and school. (AP PHOTO)

Taiwan’s high-speed rail operator said no damage or injuries were reported on its trains, although services would be delayed as it made inspections.

A major supplier of chips to Apple and Nvidia, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co said it had evacuated some fabrication plants and safety systems were operating normally.

“To ensure the safety of personnel, some fabs were evacuated according to company procedure,” the semiconductor giant said in a statement, adding later that the employees had begun to return to work.

Taiwan’s benchmark share index closed down 0.6 per cent, largely brushing off the quake’s impact, while TSMC’s Taipei-listed shares ended down 1.3 per cent.

The official central news agency said the quake was the biggest since one of magnitude 7.6 in 1999 that killed about 2400 people and damaged or destroyed 50,000 buildings.

Taiwan weather officials said the intensity of the earthquake in Hualien county was at the second-highest level of “Upper 6” on an intensity scale from one to seven.

Such a quake collapses walls unless they are made of reinforced concrete blocks, while people cannot stand upright and must crawl to move, Japan’s weather agency says.