Survivors recall escape from leaning Taiwan apartment block

PHOTO: AFP

Hualien, Taiwan - Chen Chih-wei only realised an earthquake had struck when his apartment suddenly turned on its side.

The 80-year-old resident was fast asleep when a 6.4-magnitude tremor hit the Taiwanese city of Hualien just before midnight on Tuesday.

"Everything fell down. My bed was completely vertical, I was sleeping and suddenly I was standing," he told AFP.

Chen lived with his daughter on the top floor of the Yun Tsui apartment block where at least four people were killed as the building's lower floors collapsed, leaving the structure leaning dangerously at a forty degree angle.

Engineers were frantically trying to reinforce the building on Wednesday, drafting in huge concrete blocks and steel bars to stop any further collapse as rescuers carried out the dangerous task of searching the shattered concrete structure for survivors.

Chen said he managed to make his way to his apartment balcony to await rescue but it was no easy task for an octogenarian who said he was used to quakes on an island that lies on a tectonically active faultline.

"It (the apartment) was completely slanted and there was no way to stand. My floor is very slick so I crawled and slid my way out," he recalled.

6.4-magnitude quake strikes Hualien, Taiwan

  • A 6.4-magnitude quake on the east coast of Taiwan has left two dead and more than 200 injured after buildings crumbled and trapped people inside.
  • A hotel and a residential block were the worst hit by the quake in the port city of Hualien.
  • Five more buildings including a hospital had also been damaged.
  • Televison footage showed roads strewn with rubble, cracks along highways and damaged buildings tilted at angles.
  • “It’s the biggest quake I’ve experienced in Hualien in more than 10 years,” resident Blue Hsu told AFP, who said his home shook violently.
  • Hualien is one of Taiwan’s most popular tourist hubs as it lies on the picturesque east coast rail line and is near to popular Taroko Gorge.
  • Photos on Apple Daily showed a man calling for help from the window of an apartment block and a ceiling collapse at a local hospital.
  • Officials from Hualien fire department said 149 people had been rescued from damaged buildings.
  • Amy Chen, a 64-year-old flower arrangement teacher who was at home with her husband when the quake hit, told the semi-official Central News Agency: "I have never experienced an earthquake as large as this one. I am terrified."
  • The worst-hit Marshal Hotel partly crumpled into the ground.
  • Describing the scene at the Marshal Hotel, Hsu said the bottom storeys had been crushed.
  • “The lower floors sunk into the ground and I saw panicked tourists being rescued from the hotel. There is one bulldozer and about 50 rescuers on the scene,” he said.
  • Authorities said some people remained trapped but were unable to give an overall figure.
  • Rescuers from around the island were preparing to help, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen said on her Facebook page, promising rapid disaster relief.
  • There had been at least 15 aftershocks following the quake, Taiwan’s weather bureau said.
  • The quake hit at 11.50pm around 21km north-east of Hualien, according to the United States Geological Survey.
  • It follows almost 100 smaller tremors to have hit the area in the last three days.
  • The quake comes exactly two years since a quake of the same magnitude struck the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan, killing more than 100 people.
  • Taiwan lies near the junction of two tectonic plates and is regularly hit by earthquakes.
  • The island’s worst tremor in recent decades was a 7.6 magnitude quake in September 1999 that killed around 2,400 people.

Another elderly resident, who declined to give his name, described a similar ordeal of trying to crawl through a destroyed flat suddenly turned on its side.

"The closets, shelf, table, they all toppled," he said. "It was hard to crawl from my bed, and there was all this stuff piled up. My feet stepped in water because the pipes burst." "It was a waste of money to buy this house nine years ago," he added.

Chang Fa-an, one of the building's managing staff, said he was surprised the apartment block had failed to withstand a 6.4 quake.

"When the building was first built, the units were quite expensive, the highest in the area," he told AFP.

He said staff routinely checked for cracks after previous quakes and had never found any.

One female resident watching rescue operations, who declined to give her name, wondered out loud whether recent construction work might have weakened the building.

Some residents, she said, had bought neighbouring flats inside the building and knocked down walls to create bigger dwellings. A restaurant on the first floor had recently been turned into an open plan eatery, she added.

Most of those rescued appeared to have survived the initial quake and were quickly reached overnight.

Rescue operations continued Wednesday afternoon under drizzling skies and officials said four bodies were recovered throughout the day.

Residents occasionally came back to check on the progress as volunteer groups handed out warm meat buns in the chilly winter weather. Others set up a table with congee (rice porridge) and sushi rolls.

A growing list of pets also rescued from the complex including a pug, a golden retriever, a cat and some birds.

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