TAINAN (Taiwan) • A powerful earthquake struck southern Taiwan, killing at least 14 people, most of them in a 16-storey apartment building that collapsed, and officials have promised an investigation into its construction.
More than 250 people have been rescued so far, with more than 40 hospitalised. Questions have been raised whether there could have been structural problems in the construction of the Wei-guan Golden Dragon Building in Tainan City.
Its floors collapsed on each other when the 6.4-magnitude tremor hit at around 4am yesterday, at the start of the Chinese New Year holidays. Tainan Mayor Lai Ching-te said he will order an investigation into the collapse of the building, after residents said they found cooking oil cans in the debris of its pillars, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported.
The building was completed in November 1994, according to Mr Hsu Wun-long, head of the Interior Ministry's Construction and Planning Agency.
Interior Minister Chen Wei-zen said a probe will be launched to determine who is responsible for the collapse, although the construction and engineering companies behind the building have closed down.
Only the architecture firm is still in business.
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Mr Hsu said the architect will be contacted for the investigation, and noted that it was not uncommon for construction companies to cease operating after the completion of a building project.
Mr Chen said 256 people from 96 apartment units are registered residents in the building, but feared there may have been more people than usual, as family members would have returned to celebrate Chinese New Year, the Central News Agency reported.
Two residents nearby said they were nervous during the building's construction in the early 1990s.
One of them, Madam Yang Shu-mei, said: "I looked at it and thought, 'Only people from out of town would buy there.' We local people would never dare to."
Twelve of the dead, including a 10-day-old girl, were from the building. The baby was found in her dead father's arms, the National Fire Agency said.
The other two victims were killed in different parts of the city by falling debris, the agency added.
Rescuers mounted hydraulic ladders and a crane to scour the building's ruins, plucking survivors to safety. An 18-year-old male was found conscious shortly after dark, while a 30-year-old woman, a nine-year-old girl and a toddler boy were pulled out alive, Taiwan television reports said.
Buildings in nine other locations in the city of about two million people had also collapsed, and five were left tilting at alarming angles, a government emergency centre said.
Across Tainan, more than 480 people were injured. At least 150 are reportedly missing
But a fire department official said rescue efforts were focused on the apartment block, where the smell of leaking gas lingered in the air.
"I saw the building shake up and down and left and right," said one resident. "The first and second floor just collapsed," he told local channel SET TV.
The quake was centred 43km south-east of Tainan, at a depth of 16.7 km, according to Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau website.
The US Geological Survey said the quake was shallow, meaning its effects would have been amplified.
The jolt was also felt in the capital Taipei, 300km away.
A major earthquake in central Taiwan in 1999 killed about 2,400 people and caused damage across the island, which lies in the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou visited an emergency centre and hospital in Tainan, while President-elect Tsai Ing-wen cancelled appointments to help coordinate rescue efforts.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office, which is in charge of Beijing's relations with the self-ruled island, said China was willing to provide help if needed, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported. Beijing regards Taiwan as a wayward province.
The United States and Japan have also offered assistance, according to a statement from Taiwan's presidential office.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE