Japan sends rescue experts to Taiwan; earthquake toll now nine dead, 25 missing

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

Japan sent a team of seven search and rescue experts to Taiwan on Thursday to help find survivors of its devastating earthquake, the government’s top spokesman said. The group took with them specialist equipment for locating people trapped under debris, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

“Rescue efforts within the first 72 hours after an earthquake are very important. We hope this team’s activities can lead to even one more person being rescued,” Suga said.

Also Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a message of condolence and support to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, according to the Foreign Ministry. Noting the support received from the people of Taiwan during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan, Abe said in the message that Japan “wants to give whatever assistance is needed.”

At least nine people were killed and 25 others remained missing after the 6.4 magnitude quake hit the popular eastern tourist city of Hualien late Tuesday, according to a revised toll from the national fire agency.

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.

Taiwanese rescuers braved aftershocks coursing through a dangerously leaning apartment block that was partially toppled by the deadly earthquake as their search for survivors uncovered two more bodies.

The major focus for emergency responders remained the Yun Tsui apartment block, where six of the deaths occurred and dozens are still missing.

The lower floors of the 12-story tower — which also housed a hotel — pancaked, leaving the structure leaning at a 50-degree angle and sparking fears of an imminent collapse.

Despite those risks, rescuers kept going into the building in a desperate search for survivors, but on Thursday recovered only two bodies: a Chinese mainland tourist and a hotel worker.

Strong aftershocks continued to strike sending rescue teams scurrying from the building, only for them to return a little while 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 said.

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 percent overnight, adding he had little hope of finding survivors on its lowest floors.

“Floors one to three are all compressed, so it’s hard to tell whether there are people,” he said.

He said that there was no risk of a gas explosion in the building but the aftershocks and further slippage remained a persistent danger.

In a revised toll, the national fire agency said nine people had now been confirmed killed in the quake, including three Chinese mainland nationals. A previous toll of 10 dead had counted a victim twice.

The three mainland victims were all believed to be staying at the Beauty Stay Hotel, which was located on the second floor of the apartment block.

Authorities published a steep drop in the number of missing Thursday afternoon — down from 58 to 25 — after unaccounted people got in touch with loved ones or officials.

In the apartment block, 10 people residents and seven hotel guests remained missing. More than 260 people were injured in the tremor, the strongest to hit Hualien in decades.

Hualien is one of Taiwan’s most popular tourist hubs 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 fault lines that run through the island.

The government said 17 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 Chinese mainland victims.

The woman, named as 39-year-old Yu Fei, was traveling 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 traveling on their own as I was busy and couldn’t accompany them,” the man, who had rushed from the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen, said. “I got in touch with my son, he cried.”

Tsai, who visited survivors on Wednesday and the Yun Tsui apartment block, praised emergency responders.

“Rescuers on the scene and hospital staffers continue to dedicate themselves fully to the rescue works,” she wrote on Facebook. “Stay hopeful and never give up.”

The Hualien quake came exactly two years to the day after a quake of similar size struck the western city of Tainan, killing 117 people.

Most of those who perished died in a single apartment block that 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 strength quakes.

Some survivors of the Yun Tsui tower block were baffled and angry that such a seemingly solid structure had folded with deadly results.

“It’s unbelievable such a big building toppled,” 66-year-old Chen Chien-hsiang said as fellow residents huddled under blankets, occasional aftershocks rattling the school and their already frayed nerves.

“We question whether the structural integrity of the building was damaged. Otherwise why else would it fall the way it did?” he fumed.

Like many of those who survived, Chen had to crawl his way out of an apartment suddenly upended by the tremor. “My TV, a traditional one, was flying like it was in space,” he recalled. “All the appliances were really like they’re flying.”

His apartment was on the sixth floor, but he managed to drag himself out of a window that was suddenly perched closer to the ground as a result of the quake. “The sixth floor is usually quite high up, but when I squeezed myself out the road was right there,” he said.

Another resident, 70-year-old Chang Te-ching, said many apartment owners feared that the lower floors of the complex, containing a hotel and restaurant, may have lacked proper reinforcement to support the building’s weight.

“Residential shouldn’t be combined with commercial. There are laws regulating this but it hasn’t been executed well,” he said.

“But being angry only causes you more pain.”