A series of powerful earthquakes, with the first one measuring a preliminary magnitude of 6.8, rocked northwestern Japan in quick succession Saturday evening, leaving at least five people dead, several others missing and more than 500 injured in Niigata Prefecture.
The quakes caused power blackouts to about 278,000 households in Niigata Prefecture and neighboring areas, according to Tohoku Electric Power Co. The gas supply was halted to roughly 14,000 households in the prefecture.
Landslides were reported and fires broke out. Police said there were reports that a total of about a dozen people were buried under collapsed houses in Ojiya, Kawaguchi and Nagaoka, all in Niigata Prefecture.
In Ojiya, Toshio Ogawa, 55, died at a hospital after suffering a broken neck. Ogawa was reportedly crushed when his garage collapsed immediately after one of the quakes.
Later in the day, another Ojiya resident, Misako Komagata, 70, was confirmed dead at a local hospital.
Dozens of other Ojiya residents were injured and some houses were destroyed. Roads caved in, and all of the city’s roughly 11,000 households were left without electricity, gas and water supplies or access to telephone services, according to police officials.
In the town of Tokamachi, Masahiko Kanezaki, 34, was killed when a wall collapsed on him and Toshie Kaburaki, 65, died from the shock of the quake. Police also said a 2-month-old infant was declared dead at a Tokamachi hospital.
Up to 60 others in the town were injured and taken to nearby hospitals, town officials said.
A total of 49 households in the town were cut off due to landslides, but the town government said later that it confirmed the safety of the isolated people.
The quakes caused severe damage in other cities and towns in the prefecture. The Niigata Prefectural Government said about 1,000 people evacuated their homes and took shelter at public facilities.
More than 10 people were injured in the town of Kawaguchi, and several residents were buried under collapsed houses.
About 130 were hurt in the city of Nagaoka, where two residents were listed as missing, authorities said. Fires also broke out in Nagaoka.
About 40 people received treatment at a hospital in Kashiwazaki.
The first and the strongest quake hit at 5:56 p.m, with its focus 20 km underground in the Chuetsu region in Niigata Prefecture.
The second one, which measured magnitude 6.2, struck at 6:03 p.m., followed by one measuring magnitude 5.9 at 6:12 p.m.
A powerful quake measuring magnitude 6.3 hit at 6:34 p.m., one measuring magnitude 5 at 6:36 p.m., another measuring magnitude 5.1 at 6:58 p.m. and yet another measuring magnitude 5.9 at 7:46 p.m., the Meteorological Agency said.
In Niigata, three of the quakes measured upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7.
The Meteorological Agency said aftershocks were continuing in the area, and called for caution over possible strong quakes in the coming week.
A bullet train on the Joetsu Shinkansen line, linking Tokyo and Niigata, derailed between Urasa and Nagaoka stations in Niigata Prefecture.
It was the first time a bullet train derailed since the Tokaido Shinkansen Line was launched in 1964.
East Japan Railway Co. said the first and ninth cars of the Toki 325 bullet train were tilting to one side, but that none of its roughly 150 passengers had been injured. The passengers later walked to Nagaoka Station under the guidance of railway officials.
JR East also temporarily suspended services on part of the Nagano Shinkansen Line linking Nagano and Tokyo.
Services on the Tohoku and Tokaido shinkansen lines were not affected.
The Kanestu Expressway, on which a collision involving several cars was reported shortly after the quake, was shut down in all of Niigata Prefecture.
No tsunami warning was issued.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. said its nuclear power plant in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, was unaffected and was running normally.
No damage was reported at Niigata airport.
The quakes were felt over a wide area of central Japan, registering upper or lower 5 on the Japanese scale in the Kanto and Koshinetsu regions, including Tokyo.
Two people were injured in Nagano Prefecture, while seven houses suffered damage in Gunma Prefecture.
The damage was most severe in Niigata Prefecture, where sudden horizontal shocks were felt and hospitals were thrown into chaos. All of the households in the municipalities of Nagaoka, Kashiwazaki, Yuzawa, Izumozaki, Shiozawa Kariwa suffered power blackouts.
The first rolling shock came with a thud shortly before 6 p.m., just after people sensed small tremors, rocking the entire building and rattling windows and cabinets at the Kyodo News Niigata Bureau.
In Tokamachi, about 30 injured people were taken to a public hospital by 8 p.m., but doctors and nurses had to treat them in the parking lot due to blackouts and worries that aftershocks would cause objects items to fall inside the building, a hospital guard said.
“It’s teeming with injured people, and they seem to be receiving treatment under streetlights,” the guard said.
In Ojiya, a clerk at a hospital said, “Medical equipment fell to the floor and is no longer functioning. We can carry on as we have private power generation, but it will be dicey if we will get more injured people.”
At a movie theater in the city of Niigata, people screamed and gripped their seats as the floor swayed from side to side.
About 15 minutes later, another jolt hit the city, causing shops on one street to close their shutters.
“I’m scared,” one person said as passersby, shoppers and store clerks gathered on the street.
In a hotel in Nagaoka, a female clerk at the front desk said: “We were preparing for a wedding party at the time. I found it hard to stand because the quake was so strong. Everyone went below the tables screaming.
“Our rooms were fully booked today for 300 people. But everyone has gathered in the lobby on the ground floor and are evacuating,” the hotel clerk said.
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