TAINAN (Taiwan) • Rescuers raced against time yesterday to free more than 100 people buried in the rubble of flats felled by an earthquake. A probe was launched into the building collapse from which 26 bodies have been recovered.
This was as a disaster evaluation team from Japan and a rescue team from China arrived in Taiwan yesterday to provide assistance.
The death toll was rising as emergency workers dug to find survivors of the 6.4-magnitude quake that toppled the 16-storey Wei-guan Golden Dragon Building, a mixed commercial-residential complex of four linked blocks containing almost 100 homes, in the city of Tainan last Saturday.
Officials said a probe was launched as questions were raised over the safety of the complex. Tainan mayor William Lai said survivors and relatives had reported there were legal "violations" there.
"We've also commissioned three independent bodies to preserve evidence during the rescue so we can assist the residents if they want to file lawsuits in the future. We will hold the builder responsible if they have broken the law," said Mr Lai.
A civil engineering team sent by the city government to examine the complex found the blocks had fallen towards the east of the complex, the first floor of which was a row of shops. It believed that the reduced number of walls and pillars in the shops had weakened the building.
Local media reported that the construction company that built the complex had gone out of business, and also raised questions about the quality of the materials used.
Rescuers said 126 residents were still missing. Of these, 103 were trapped "very deep" in the rubble, according to Mr Lai. "There's no way to get to them direct, it's very difficult," he said, adding that emergency workers were having to bolster the ruins to ensure they were secure before digging.
Census records show around 260 people living in the blocks but Mr Lai said it was now thought that more than 300 had been inside.
Officials have said that some students renting rooms would not have been registered as living in the building, and additional family members may have returned to celebrate this week's Chinese New Year holiday.
More than 250 people have already been rescued with emergency workers using cranes, ladders and sniffer dogs to trace and extract survivors, with three more brought out alive yesterday morning.
Among the 26 killed in the quake, at least 20 died in the complex collapse, including a 10-day-old baby girl and two other children.
Tearful relatives huddled by the ruins, hoping for news. One woman, Ms Chen Yu-mei, told how her three-month-old son was trapped inside with her sister's family of seven. "He's a small child, I'm worried sick," she said, her voice cracking and eyes red from crying. "I've been waiting since 4am yesterday and I haven't got any news of them."
Meanwhile, survivors spoke of their terror and relief. One man recounted how he was rescued after tapping on a wardrobe that was trapping him.
"I knocked on the closet to get the attention of rescuers who broke the window to get me," said resident Su Yi-ming, 48, who lived with his family on the sixth floor of the complex. He escaped uninjured, with his wife and their two children sustaining minor injuries.
The quake struck at a shallow depth of 10km at around 4am last Saturday, 39km north-east of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city.
Buildings in nine other locations in the city of two million people have collapsed and five were left tilting at alarming angles, a government emergency centre said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS