Strongest quake in quarter century rocks Taiwan, but death toll is low


TAIPEI, Taiwan — A 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck off the east coast of Taiwan on Wednesday morning, killing nine people and leaving more than 50 others trapped in damaged buildings, tunnels and hiking trails as the tremor triggered tsunami warnings as far as Japan and the Philippines.

The earthquake, the strongest to hit Taiwan in 25 years, hit south of Hualien County — a scenic, sparsely populated coastal region — just before 8 a.m. local time. The quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey said measured 7.4 in magnitude, was felt as far as Shanghai and China’s southeastern provinces. Taiwan’s Central Weather Administration recorded the earthquake at 7.2.

Live cam footage and security cameras catch the moment a deadly 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck off the east coast of Taiwan on April 3. (Video: Reuters)

Taiwan sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a region of the Pacific Ocean that is home to most of the world’s earthquakes. The quake was felt across the island, as far as 200 miles from the epicenter. In Taipei, shaking that lasted more than a minute sent panicked residents outside of their homes. Students were evacuated from schools and sat in rows along sidewalks and playgrounds. More than 900 people were injured, mostly by falling objects, according to Taiwan’s National Fire Agency.

Officials said the quake was the strongest to hit the island since 1999 when a 7.6 magnitude tremor struck central Taiwan, killing more than 2,400 people. After that earthquake, one of the worst in the island’s history, authorities mandated stricter building codes.

Those efforts could explain Wednesday’s relatively low death toll. Lu Chin-wen, an architect who helped with reconstruction after the 1999 earthquake, said structures built after the new regulations were stronger and that may have helped. “If buildings are damaged but not destroyed, the casualties will be relatively fewer,” he said.

In recent years, city governments have launched various campaigns to upgrade older buildings to make them more earthquake resistant. Since 2019, the government has been reviewing 36,000 buildings across the country that were built before 1999 and providing subsidies to upgrade them.

Even in Hualien, one of Taiwan’s most earthquake prone areas, residents were shocked by the strength of the tremors. On social media, users posted photos of partially collapsed buildings tilting dangerously as rescue workers raced to reach people still inside. Local media reports also showed residents escaping their homes through their windows.

Shi Yi-rong, 34, quickly left her apartment in a 16-story building in Hualien when she smelled gas leaking after the quake hit. She spent the day at a breakfast cafe with other terrified residents and plans to spend the evening at a friend’s place, where she can easily evacuate if needed. “I’m not going home today,” she said.

Another resident, Liang Kai-xiong who runs a bed-and-breakfast, ran from his building when the earthquake struck. “I was panicking. There hasn’t been one that big for a long time,” he said.

A 7.4-magnitude earthquake hit the east coast of Taiwan on April 3, causing a building to lean to one side. (Video: AP)

Lin Yuh-der, 36, a former political campaign worker in Hualien, said his first instinct when the shaking began was to evacuate all elderly family members from their home.

“Hualien is a place where earthquakes are frequent, but this one immediately struck me as unusual because it was long and shook vertically, up and down,” he said.

In less than five hours after the quake, Taiwan recorded 76 aftershocks, some as large as magnitude 6.4. More than 300,000 households lost power and commuters were stranded as metro lines and the island’s high-speed rail system suspended operations. Wu Chien-fu, director of the Central Weather Administration’s Seismology Center, said aftershocks of magnitude 6.5 to 7.0 were possible in the next three to four days.

At least 24 landslides were recorded across the island, bringing traffic to a standstill on the east coast as three highways were cut off and at least one bridge collapsed. Taiwan’s military was deployed to work with local governments on rescue efforts, while President Tsai Ing-wen advised residents not to take elevators and to “pay more attention” to their safety.

On Yonaguni, one of the Okinawa islands, an 11-inch tsunami hit 20 minutes after the initial quake, prompting Japanese authorities to advise residents to evacuate to higher ground. The Japanese Meteorological Agency later downgraded the tsunami warning for Okinawa to a tsunami advisory, indicating that the height of anticipated tsunamis would not be as high as originally estimated.

On April 3, people evacuated to higher ground after a tsunami warning in Okinawa prefecture, Japan. (Video: AP)

Officials in the Philippines initially also warned residents in coastal areas to move to higher ground. About three hours after the earthquake, Taiwan officials downgraded their tsunami warning and the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the threat had “largely passed.”

Taiwan, home to more than 23 million people, is also a key manufacturing hub for many of the world’s advanced computer chips. A spokesperson for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, or TSMC, said some manufacturing plants had been evacuated and that some operations were suspended.

All nine casualties on Wednesday were in Hualien, a popular tourist destination, and caused by falling rocks. Among them were three hikers and a worker at Taroko Gorge, a national park, two drivers whose cars were crushed by falling boulders and one person at a mining site.

The quake comes just ahead of a four-day public holiday known as Tomb Sweeping Day, when residents travel home to honor late relatives and tend to their graves. Taiwan’s minister of transportation, Wang Kwo-tsai, said authorities would use boats to transport people to and from Hualien for the holiday due to the blocked roads.

Inuma reported from Tokyo.


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