Australians missing as Taiwan quake death toll hits 12

Fabian Hamacher and Joyce Zhou |

Rescue workers have recovered bodies in a hotel in Taroko National Park in Taiwan.
Rescue workers have recovered bodies in a hotel in Taroko National Park in Taiwan.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs is working to determine the fate of two Australians reported missing after Taiwan’s worst earthquake in 25 years.

They are among three foreigners, including a Canadian, who remain unaccounted for as rescuers face further landslides and rockfalls in their search for 13 people still missing from Wednesday’s quake, as the death toll rose to 12.

Searchers discovered two more bodies after Wednesday’s quake of magnitude 7.2 struck the sparsely populated, largely rural eastern county of Hualien, stranding hundreds in a national park as boulders barrelled down mountains, cutting off roads.

As some 50 aftershocks rattled the area overnight, some felt as far away as Taipei, rescuers said about 400 people cut off in a luxury hotel in the Taroko Gorge national park were safe, with helicopters ferrying out the injured and bringing supplies.

“Rain increases the risks of rockfalls and landslides, which are currently the biggest challenges,” said Su Yu-ming, the leader of a search team helping the rescue effort.

“These factors are unpredictable, which means we cannot confirm the number of days required for the search and rescue operations.”

Taiwan’s fire department said two bodies were found in the mountains, but did not immediately update the death toll. 

A tourist after being rescued from Taroko Gorge national park
A tourist who was trapped in Taroko Gorge national park walks to an ambulance after being rescued. (AP PHOTO)

It put the number of missing at 13, three of them foreigners of Australian and Canadian nationality.

It dropped from the list of missing an Indian national whose inclusion it called a mistake, but did not elaborate.

A group of 50 hotel workers marooned on a road to the national park are now mostly safe.

“I am lucky to survive,” said David Chen, 63, a security manager at the hotel, after his rescue. 

“We were terrified when the earthquake first happened. We thought it was all over, all over, all over, because it was an earthquake, right?”

Rocks were still tumbling down nearby slopes as the group left, he said. 

“We had to navigate through the gaps between the falling rocks, with the rescue team out front.”

Workers begin demolition of a collapsed building in Hualien City
Demolition of collapsed buildings has begun in Hualien City following the magnitude 7.2 quake. (AP PHOTO)

Chen’s 85-year-old mother wept in relief on being reunited with her son, as the family had not known for some time if he had survived.

“I was happy when he returned,” said the mother, Chen Lan-chih. 

“I didn’t sleep at all last night and couldn’t eat anything.”

The quake came a day before Taiwan began a long weekend holiday for the traditional tomb sweeping festival, when people head to their homes to spruce up ancestral graves.

Many others visit tourist spots, such as Hualien, famed for its rugged beauty, but the earthquake has crushed business, with many bookings cancelled, some businesses said.

“This is a disaster actually for us because no matter (whether) hotel, hostel, restaurants (everything) really depends on tourism,” said hostel owner Aga Syu, adding that her main concern was the wellbeing of guests.

“I hope this won’t destroy their image of Hualien.”

Taiwan lies near the junction of two tectonic plates and is prone to earthquakes. 

More than 100 people were killed in a 2016 quake in its south, while one of magnitude 7.3 killed more than 2,000 in 1999.

with DPA