Five dead after powerful Taiwan quake fells buildings

A powerful earthquake in Taiwan felled a 16-storey apartment complex full of families who had gathered for Lunar New Year celebrations in the early hours of Saturday, with at least five dead and more than 30 feared trapped.

The 6.4-magnitude quake struck in the middle of the night and as day dawned it revealed the destruction left behind in the city of Tainan, which bore the brunt of the damage.

An entire residential complex of four buildings containing almost 100 homes toppled to the ground, lying on its side with twisted metal girders exposed and clouds of dust rising from the jumbled concrete.

A 10-day old baby girl and a 40-year-old man were pulled dead from the building, National Fire Agency officials said, with reports that around 30 more were still trapped inside.

A third woman died after being hit by a falling water tank with no details immediately available of the other two deaths, the fire agency said.

About 400 troops have been mobilised to help the rescue effort.

Residents at the 16-storey felled Wei-kuan Building told of their terror as the quake hit, with survivors pulled bleeding and crying from the rubble, some just in their underwear.

"I saw buildings shake up and down and left and right," said one resident.

"The first and second floor just collapsed and I smelt gas and water was leaking," he told local channel SET TV.

Another man tied his clothes together to create a rope and lowered himself from his home on the ninth floor to the sixth floor below, Apple Daily reported.

One woman told how she had fought her way out of her home.

"I used a hammer to break the door of my home which was twisted and locked, and managed to climb out," she told SET TV, weeping as she spoke.

Rescuers have freed more than 200 people from the apartment complex, with over 40 of them hospitalised.

Interior minister Chen Wei-jen said he feared there may be more people in the building than usual as family members would have returned to celebrate the Lunar New Year holidays next week.

"Exactly how many people were there when the quake hit was not immediately clear," said Chen.

"We are concerned that most members of those families may have returned for the coming new year holiday." Officials said there were 256 people registered as living in the complex, which contained 96 apartments.

Dazed and exhausted residents stood outside the toppled buildings, watching rescue workers free survivors - from infants to the elderly, some strapped to stretchers - and carefully hand them down ladders.

Television footage showed two small children wrapped in blankets being plucked from the building.

"(The building) shook up and down. I was terrified and my wife and I held each other. We thought we weren't going to make it," one resident told TVBS.

As Premier 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 earlier freed from another residential seven-storey building, with officials saying several blocks had collapsed or half collapsed in other parts of the city.

China has offered rescue assistance if needed, according to state news agency Xinhua, citing Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office.

Across Tainan, 316 people were injured, with more than 60 hospitalised, officials said, but the search and rescue operation was focused purely on the Wei-kuan complex.

The shallow quake struck at a depth of 10 kilometres (six miles) at around 4:00 am (2000 GMT Friday), 39 kilometres northeast of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city and an important port.

Taiwan lies near the junction of two tectonic plates and is regularly hit by earthquakes.

A strong 6.3-magnitude quake that hit central Taiwan in June 2013 killed four people and caused widespread landslides.

A 7.6-magnitude quake struck the island in September 1999 and killed around 2,400 people.