Osaka quake: Nine-year-old dies en route to school, while panic fuels fake news

Police officers investigate the site where an elementary school student was killed after the walls next to the school pool had collapsed due to a magnitude 6.1 earthquake in Takatsuki, Osaka, Japan, on June 18, 2018. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO - Her 10-minute walk to school for the past three years always brought nine-year-old Rina Miyake past a cheerful mural of a garden on a sunny day.

On Monday (June 18) morning, she left home slightly earlier than usual - as she had been doing since last week - because she had been assigned morning prefect duties.

As Rina walked past the mural - painted on a 3.5-metre-high wall - the ground began to shake under her feet, bringing part of the concrete structure crashing down.

The schoolgirl was buried under the concrete blocks, which were not properly reinforced in what city officials now say is a breach of regulations.

Osaka, Japan's second-largest metropolitan area, was jolted by a major earthquake at 7.58am (6.58am Singapore time), in what was the prefecture's strongest recorded tremor on the Japanese scale since records started to be kept in 1923.

Rina was among four people killed in the quake, which also left at least 350 others injured. The Japan Meteorological Agency said it measured a magnitude of 6.1.

The tremor sparked panic, and rumours dressed up as official information started making the rounds like wildfire, prompting the local authorities to urge people to refrain from spreading fake news.

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A widely-shared tweet said the roof of the Kyocera Dome Osaka stadium, the home ground of popular baseball team Orix Buffaloes, was cracked. Other rumours included a train derailment and a zebra having escaped from a zoo.

Rina, a fourth-grade pupil at Takatsuki Municipal Juei Elementary, was just 50m from the school entrance when the wall collapsed.

About six adults rushed to her aid, the Mainichi Shimbun reported, but it was to no avail.

"The adults held her in their arms and said 'It's okay, it's okay' over and over again," the daily quoted the school's 70-year-old security guard as saying.

Elsewhere, Mr Minoru Yasui, 80, was on his way to do volunteer work at the Shinjo Elementary School when he, too, was struck by falling cement blocks from a 2m wall.

His bereaved son Katsuyuki told public broadcaster NHK that his father had been volunteering at the school - rain or shine, or even snow - for more than 15 years.

Mr Yasui did not stop even when he had to rely on a cane to get around recently.

"I really don't know what to say. My father would have been safe if he had managed to walk just a few metres further," he said, his voice quivering.

"He was someone who liked to be around children and would be happy just seeing the faces of the children and hearing their greetings."

The third victim, Mr Motochika Goto, 85, died after he was trapped under a bookshelf at his home. The fourth victim, Ms Katsue Saka, 81, died after a cupboard collapsed on her.

Osaka, usually a bustling industrial and tourist hub, came to a standstill on Monday morning.

News pictures showed residents evacuating to open fields, while many of Osaka's 400 or so schools closed for the day, as did some businesses.

Singaporean Lee Jia Wen, 22, an intern at The Straits Times' Picture Desk, was in Osaka with her family at the time of the quake.

"I was sleeping but was jolted awake when it happened," she said. "All of us were quite scared since it was the first time that we felt an earthquake."

Mr Masa Fukuda, who was born in Takatsuki, Osaka, and now lives in Utah as the founder of the non-profit One Voice Children's Choir, wrote on Facebook: "Knowing the intensity of the quake, it's a miracle that our house is still standing."

And, with the resilient spirit that the Japanese have come to be known for, he added: "I spoke to my mum and she said: 'Well, we were going to do some major cleaning in our house anyway, so this will be a good opportunity'.

"I'm glad she has a positive outlook on life."

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