TAIPEI – A powerful earthquake in Taiwan early Saturday destroyed a 17-story apartment complex full of families who had gathered for Lunar New Year celebrations, with at least seven dead.
The magnitude-6.4 quake struck in the middle of the night. The light of dawn revealed the extent of the destruction in the city of Tainan, which bore the brunt of the damage.
Rescuers pulled 249 survivors from the rubble in Tainan, and about eight people remained unaccounted for. Seventy-three people were sent to hospitals.
An entire residential complex toppled to the ground, lying on its side with twisted metal girders exposed. Local media said the building included a care center for newborns and mothers.
The emergency response center said seven people were killed, including a 10-day-old infant, a small child and at least two other residents in the high-rise. One death was caused by falling objects.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tokyo is ready to extend any support Taiwan needs. “I would like to extend my heartfelt condolences to those who died and offer deepest sympathies to the afflicted,” Abe said in a message to Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.
Questions were being asked about whether the construction crew had cut corners when building the Wei Guan residential complex, which was finished in 1989. Taiwan’s interior minister, Chen Wei-zen, said an investigation would examine whether the developer skirted requirements.
The quake was felt as a lengthy, rolling shake in Taipei, on the other side of the island. Residents in mainland China also reported that the tremor was felt there.
Residents at the 16-story Wei Guan building told of their terror as the quake hit.
“I saw buildings shake up and down and left and right,” one told SET TV. “The first and second floor just collapsed, and I smelled gas, and water was leaking.”
Another man tied his clothes together to create a rope and lowered himself from his apartment on the ninth floor to the sixth floor below, Apple Daily reported.
One woman told how she had been trapped. “I used a hammer to break the door of my home, which was twisted and locked, and managed to climb out,” she told SET.
Officials said there were 256 residents registered as living in the building, which contained 96 apartments.
Dazed and exhausted residents stood outside the toppled building, watching rescue workers take survivors from the rubble and carefully hand them down ladders.
The Taiwanese news website ET Today reported that a mother and daughter were among the survivors. The girl drank her urine while waiting to be rescued, which happened sooner than expected.
Rescuers went from apartment to apartment, drawing red circles near windows of apartments they already had searched.
“I went to the top floors of the middle part of the building, where we found five people, one of whom was in bed and already dead,” said Liu Wen-bin, a 50-year-old rescuer from Taichung. “Some people were found in the shower, some in the bedroom.”
As Prime Minister Chang San-cheng visited the disaster zone, one elderly woman wept, saying her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were still trapped on the 15th floor, Apple Daily reported.
Cranes towered over the disaster zone, with diggers trying to remove slabs of concrete.
Separately, at least 30 people were freed from another residential seven-story building.
The shallow quake struck at a depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles) at around 4 a.m., according to the U.S. Geological Survey, 39 kilometers northeast of Kaohsiung, the second-largest city on the island and an important port.
Taiwan lies near the junction of two tectonic plates and is regularly hit by earthquakes. A strong magnitude-6.3 quake that hit central Taiwan in June 2013 killed four people and caused widespread landslides. A magnitude-7.6 quake in September 1999 killed around 2,400 people.