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9 killed, 946 injured in Taiwan’s earthquake

•Hospitals operating normally despite structural damage

A strong earthquake that hit Taiwan yesterday and measured magnitude 7.4, according to the United States Geological Survey, was the strongest to hit the island in about 25 years.

The quake hit at a depth of 15.5 km (9.6 miles) in Hualien, just as people were headed for work and school, setting off a tsunami warning for southern Japan and the Philippines that was later lifted. 

In Japan, the weather agency put the quake’s magnitude at 7.7, saying several small tsunami waves reached parts of the southern prefecture of Okinawa, while downgrading its tsunami warning to an advisory. In the Philippines, seismology officials warned coastal residents in several provinces to move to higher ground.

Chinese state media said the quake was felt in the southeastern province of Fujian, while a witness said it was also felt in the commercial hub of Shanghai. The White House said the U.S. stood ready to provide any assistance necessary.

The government put the number of deaths at nine and the injured at 946. Over the last 50 years, the island has experienced seven major earthquakes, the last being a 7.1 magnitude quake in 2006 in Pingtung County in southern Taiwan. Others are 1978 – East of Taitung County; 1978 – East of Taitung County; 1986 Hualien County; 1999 – Nantou County; 2002 – East of Hualien County; 2006 – Pingtung County; and 2024 –  Hualien County.

The island sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which makes it prone to earthquakes. “At present, the most important thing, the top priority, is to rescue people,” said President-elect, Lai Ching-te, speaking outside one of the collapsed buildings in Hualien. “The rail link to the area was expected to re-open on Thursday (today),” Lai, who is set to take office next month, told reporters.

Taiwan’s high-speed rail operator said no damage or injuries were reported on its trains, although services would be delayed as it made inspections. Video released showed rescuers using ladders to help trapped people out of windows. Strong tremors in Taipei forced the subway system to close briefly, although most lines resumed service.

Fire authorities evacuated some 70 people trapped in tunnels near the Hualien city, including two Germans. At the time, they had lost contact with 50 workers aboard four minibuses heading to a hotel in a national park, Taroko Gorge, and rescuers were looking for them. Another 80 people were trapped in a mining area, though it was not immediately clear if they were inside a mine.

As of press time, aftershocks could still be felt in the Island’s capital city, Taipei, with more than 50 recorded, weather officials said. Taiwan’s official central news agency said the quake was the biggest since that of magnitude 7.6 in 1999 that killed about 2,400 people and damaged or destroyed 50,000 buildings.

Taiwan’s weather officials ranked yesterday’s quake as “Upper 6,” or the second-highest level of intensity on a scale ranging from one to seven. Such quakes collapse walls unless they are made of reinforced concrete blocks, while people cannot stand upright and must crawl in order to move, experts say.

Most power has been restored after the quake, electricity utility Taipower said, with the Island’s two nuclear power stations unaffected. Also, as of press time, hospitals across Taipei City were operating normally despite being damaged by the earthquake, according to the Municipal Government.

At least, seven hospitals in the city were reported to have suffered some structural damage, including “fallen tiles, partially fallen ceilings, cracks in the wall and electricity outage,” according to a government statement.

It said only one hospital was still offline following the quake. “All hospitals are operating normally, except the Tri-Service General Hospital Songshan Branch, which has temporarily suspended service due to power outages, fallen ceilings and water leakages,” the statement said.

Taiwan’s Air force said six F-16 fighter jets had been slightly damaged at a major base in the city from which jets are often scrambled to see off incursions by China’s Air force, but the aircrafts are expected to return to service very soon.

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