Taiwan’s biggest earthquake in 25 years kills nine

Taiwan’s biggest earthquake in 25 years killed at least nine people and injured hundreds more on Wednesday as it shook buildings across the island.

Violent shaking was felt across all of Taiwan and its outlying islands from the magnitude 7.2 tremor, leaving buildings leaning precariously near the epicentre, close to the eastern coastal city of Hualien, in a mountainous part of the island.

Even as more than 100 aftershocks rattled the island nation, rescuers were trying to reach dozens of people caught by landslides and falling debris, including 70 workers trapped in two rock quarries. At least 50 people have been reported missing.

Fang Zhen, a 22-year-old undergraduate at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien, was woken up when things started to fall from the shelves in his bedroom.

When he thought it was over, Mr Fang went downstairs to survey the damage and saw that part of a nearby mountain “had completely collapsed”.

Home of the popular tourist attraction Taroko Gorge – itself the result of a collision of massive tectonic plates – Hualien is no stranger to earthquakes, some resulting in serious damage and deaths.

Images from the area’s picturesque mountains on Wednesday showed landslides that sent thick clouds of dust into the sky.

Elsewhere in Taiwan, train passengers gripped subway railings and ducked to the ground as the cars swayed violently.

Footage from local media reports showed hapless swimmers caught up in violent waves that formed in rooftop swimming pools.

During one live news broadcast, a presenter carried on heroically, advising audiences to remain calm despite nearly losing her balance as the shaking caused debris to fall from the ceiling.

Hualien’s experience of frequent earthquakes meant people were well-prepared for Wednesday’s tremor, said Joyce Yeh, a professor at National Dong Hwa University who has lived in the area for 20 years.

“Hualien people say if you don’t run away, you are a local, and if you run away, you are not a local. You just wait, and you hold on until it calms down,” Prof Yeh told The Telegraph from her farmhouse in Hualien.

Damaged building in Hualien, Taiwan
A partially collapsed building in Hualien - CNA/AFP/Getty Images

Prof Yeh said she was getting ready to travel for the Tomb Sweeping holiday, an important traditional festival where people pay their respects to their elders, when glasses and bottles began to fall to the floor and shatter.

After the shaking subsided, a warning from the local government arrived urging her to close all her windows because a fire had broken out at the university’s science building, and the smoke may have contained toxic fumes.

While the experience left her “shocked and terrified,” she said she felt far more prepared this time compared to the 6.5-magnitude earthquake there in 2018 that left 17 people dead.

This time, she had prepared an emergency backpack with her passport, ID, and water. “So I just grabbed my bag and walked outside and waited in my yard.”

The earthquake severely disrupted travel around the island, complicating the work of rescuers trying to get to people in areas cut off by massive landslides – many in tunnels that cut through the mountains that bisect the island from north to south.

A man checks a partially collapsed building in Hualien for survivors . . .
A man checks a partially collapsed building in Hualien for survivors . . . - TVBS
. . . before pulling a child to safety through a window
. . . before pulling a child to safety through a window - TVBS

Wang Kwo-Tsai, Taiwan’s minister of transportation, said he was “not optimistic” that the island’s roads and railways would be operational again soon.

In the meantime, maritime transport is being propped up to connect Hualien’s port to the northern Su’ao port.

China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province, said it was “paying close attention” to the quake and “willing to provide disaster relief assistance”.

The earthquake was the strongest to hit since 1999 when a magnitude 7.3 tremor killed more than 2,400 people, injured over 11,000 and damaged more than 50,000 buildings.

Emergency workers assist a survivor after he was rescued from a damaged building in New Taipei City
Emergency workers assist a survivor after he was rescued from a damaged building in New Taipei City - CNA/AFP via Getty Images
Members of a search and rescue team prepare to enter a partially collapsed building in Hualien
Members of a search and rescue team prepare to enter a partially collapsed building in Hualien - National Fire Agency/AP

Many Taiwanese likened Wednesday’s shaking to the 1999 disaster. “It felt just like it,” one said. “It felt just as serious.”

But the known damage and casualties this time are far smaller. Of the nine deaths reported so far, many were people who were struck by falling rocks while hiking or in vehicles.

Strict building regulations in Taiwan – revised after the 1999 disaster – and widespread public awareness of the threat posed by seismic activity, appear to have staved off a major catastrophe for the island.

T.H. Schee, of Taiwan’s Open Knowledge Foundation, who has worked closely with civil defence and preparedness groups across Taiwan, had returned to his hometown of Puli, which was impacted heavily by the 1999 quake.

“Just in Puli, around 5,000 buildings collapsed in a small town of 80,000 people. It hurt a lot,” he said. “And after that, the government, especially the Ministry of Interior, started developing new building codes for newly constructed houses, apartments, and buildings that were enforceable.”

“They required buildings to withstand a high level of force,” he said.

A damaged apartment in New Taipei City
A damaged apartment in New Taipei City - Fabian Hamacher/REUTERS

Other factors contributed to the lower number of casualties, Mr Schee said.

Taiwan’s emergency response is now more organised and, unlike 25 years ago, involves civil society and volunteer organisations. Wednesday’s quake also struck deeper – at a depth of more than 21 miles – creating a less extreme shockwave.

“For the magnitude of the earthquake, [the situation] could have been very serious, but it’s not,” Mr Schee said. “I think the response has improved a lot because we only see [nine] casualties so far.”

02:14 AM BST

Everything we know about the earthquake in Taiwan

  • Earthquake with magnitude of 7.7 strikes off coast of Taiwan

  • Tsunami warning issued on southwestern coast of Japan, later downgraded to advisory

  • Nearly 90,000 people without power in Taiwan

  • Eastern Taiwanese city of Hualien seems to be worst affected with reports of collapsed buildings

  • Quake hit at 7.58am local time (12.58am UK)