Death toll in Taiwan quake rises to 10, but only 7 still missing

A Hualien resident cries as he speaks with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen as she visits the rescue operations at the Yun Tsui building, which is badly damaged and leaning at a precarious angle, in the Taiwanese city of Hualien on February 8, 2018, after the city was hit by a 6.4-magnitude quake late on February 6. PHOTO: AFP
Officials put the toll at 10 dead, ranging in age from 37 to 66, and seven missing as of Thursday (Feb 8) evening. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HUALIEN (NYTIMES, AFP) - Rescuers in Taiwan braved powerful aftershocks to search for survivors in a dangerously leaning apartment block that was partially toppled by a quake, locating three more bodies early on Thursday (Feb 8) to bring the death toll to 10.

The magnitude-6.4 quake struck at 11.50pm on Tuesday and was centred 23km north-east of the coastal city of Hualien. The shaking was felt across Taiwan, but in Hualien the force was disastrous, collapsing walls and leaving buildings resting at alarming angles.

Another 4.9-magnitude earthquake jolted waters near Hualien county at 8.54am on Thursday, according to the China Earthquake Networks Centre (CENC).

The quake struck at a depth of 8km, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.

At least 10 people have now been confirmed killed - five locals, four Chinese mainland nationals and a woman from the Philippines. But authorities dramatically slashed the number of missing from more than 60 people to seven by Thursday evening - five Chinese mainland nationals and a Canadian-Chinese couple.

The powerful tremor left a handful of buildings badly damaged - some of them leaning at precarious angles - as well as roads torn up and hundreds forced to shelter in local schools and a stadium.

Despite those risks rescuers kept going into the building in a desperate search for survivors. But Thursday's search only recovered three bodies - a Chinese mainland tourist, a local hotel worker and the Filipina.

Strong aftershocks continued to strike, sending the teams scurrying from the building, only for them to return a little later and resume their grim task. An emergency responder surnamed Lin said it took 14 hours to free the body of the hotel worker, who was partially trapped between the hotel's ceiling and floor.

"We saw his hair and were digging for some time," he told AFP. All the while they could hear the victim's mobile phone ringing, he added. The man was later brought out in a white body bag.

A Red Cross worker at the scene estimated that the building had tilted another 5 per cent overnight, adding he had little hope of survivors being found on its lowest floors.

"Floors one to three are all compressed so it's hard to tell whether there are people," he told AFP, requesting anonymity. He said that there was no risk of a gas explosion in the building but the aftershocks and further slippage remained a persistent danger.

Popular tourist spot

Hualien is one of Taiwan's most popular tourist destinations as it lies on the picturesque east coast rail line and near the popular Taroko Gorge.

But the mountains that rise up behind the city - and bestow Taiwan's east coast with such majestic beauty - are a testament to the deadly tectonic faultlines that run through the island.

The government said 16 foreigners sought medical treatment for minor injuries. Local broadcaster SET TV ran an interview with a man who said he was the husband of one of the mainland Chinese victims. The woman, named as 39-year-old Yu Fei, was travelling with the couple's young son on the island. The son survived the quake with light injuries. She was pulled from the wrecked building and later died in hospital.

"They were travelling on their own as I was busy and couldn't accompany them," the man, who had rushed from the Chinese city of Xiamen, said. "I got in touch with my son, he cried."

President Tsai Ing-wen visited survivors on Thursday, many in tears. In a Facebook post she praised emergency responders. "Rescuers on the scene and hospital staffers continue to dedicate themselves fully to the rescue works," she wrote. "Stay hopeful and never give up."

The Hualien quake came exactly two years to the day after a similar sized tremor struck the western city of Tainan, killing 117 people. Most of those who perished died in a single apartment block which collapsed. Five people were later found guilty over the disaster, including the developer and two architects, for building an inadequate structure.

The island's worst tremor in recent decades was a 7.6-magnitude quake in September 1999 that killed around 2,400 people. That quake ushered in stricter building codes but many of Taiwan's older buildings remain perilously vulnerable to even moderate quakes.

The government said 17 foreigners sought medical treatment for minor injuries.

Two Singaporeans were among those under temporary shelter at a Hualien stadium, it was reported on Wednesday. Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there were no reports of Singaporeans injured.

Some 800 people went to bed in shelters on Wednesday: nearly 500 at the Hualien Gymnasium and more than 300 at the Chunghwa Primary School. Their homes had been destroyed or damaged, or they were fearful about the frequent and occasionally strong aftershocks that have regularly jolted the area since the quake.

At the school, people slept bundled up in heavy blankets and wearing coats and caps.

"It wasn't a normal earthquake, there have been more than 100 aftershocks," said Wu Ching-hua, 62, a native of Hualien who woke early on Thursday at the school.

"We've had bigger quakes here many times before, but the aftershocks taper off gradually. Right now we don't know what will happen."

Hualien residents are used to earthquakes and typhoons, volunteer Fan Chen-yuan said, but this time was different. "Everyone's a bit tense," he said.

Standing next to piles of medical supplies, food and water donated by local groups and individuals as well as from around Taiwan, Fan said the prompt outpouring of help showed that "Taiwanese will look after their countrymen".

Another volunteer, Lin Hsin-hsuan, who came to help with two friends from neighbouring Yilan county, prepared soup and rice noodles for police officers and firefighters working in the cold rain early on Thursday morning at the Yun Men Tsui Ti building.

Under what was once the building's ground floor, rescuers continued to work among gnarled rebar, bricks and other debris, as humming generators powered emergency flood lights.

The grey tile and glass building sits next to a park along the Meilun River. The authorities believe that more than 200 people were in the building during the quake, which flattened parts of its lower levels and left it leaning precariously.

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The bottom floors of another building, the Marshal Hotel, also collapsed. One person was killed there and two were missing, officials said.

Taiwan sits at the intersection of the Philippine Sea tectonic plate, which is moving west at about 8cm a year, and the Eurasian plate, which extends east from mainland China. It experiences frequent seismic activity.

Two strong earthquakes of magnitude 5.3 and 6.1 were recorded within 45 minutes of each other on Sunday night near Hualien.

The pattern of seismic activity that followed was stronger than anything that had previously been recorded in the area, Chen Kuo-chang, acting director of the Central Weather Bureau's Seismology Center, told the Central News Agency.

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