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More than 150 people missing after Taiwan earthquake

Hundreds of Taiwanese firefighters and military personnel raced throughout the night Saturday in frigid temperatures looking for survivors trapped in collapsed buildings after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck southern Taiwan.

At least 14 people, including a 10-day-old girl, were reported killed in the temblor, which hit hardest in the city of Tainan, authorities said.

The powerful quake ripped a 10-foot chasm in a golf course, cut off water supplies to 400,000 people and halted high-speed rail service to the southern half of the island just ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.

As of early Sunday, Tainan authorities said 153 people remained unaccounted for. At least 12 of those confirmed dead were residents of one collapsed 17-story building.

Rescuers using backhoes and other heavy equipment have helped hundreds of people out of danger — more than 260 of them from the ruins of the Wei Guan residential complex in Tainan's Yongkang district. Authorities said at least 484 people had been injured in the quake, but many of them suffered only minor wounds.

Three children, including the 10-day-old girl, were among the dozen residents killed when the building collapsed. At least 10 other buildings fell during the temblor. Another victim, a 56-year-old woman, was killed when a water tower toppled over. 

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Wu Ching-Chung, a Tainan firefighter, said the situation at the Wei Guan complex was complicated.

“Because the building collapsed so completely, there was no space left for the people inside — no real pockets,” he said. Nevertheless, firefighters believed there could still be people alive.

A survivor was pulled from the wreckage around 5 p.m. local time. Shortly before 11 p.m., authorities said an “unconscious man” and a man showing “no signs of life” were found.

Rescue work was hampered by smoke billowing from a section of the Wei Guan complex, perhaps from a fire at a ruptured natural gas line. Officials had brought cranes and other construction equipment to prop up the listing structure.

Wu Cheng-Chang of Taiwan International Emergency Response, a nonprofit aid group, said conditions inside were difficult.

“We have to crawl in and use electric drills,” he said. “We are working in two-hour shifts.”

The quake cast a pall over the approach of Lunar New Year, a peak travel period on the island when many people return to their hometowns.

Major political parties, including the Democratic Progressive Party, canceled their nationwide New Year events. The party’s president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, instructed authorities in regions affected by the earthquake to give all available resources and manpower to the rescue efforts.

Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou flew to Tainan, pledging “all-out efforts” to rescue those who remained trapped and assist others affected by the disaster. Ma said the military had prepared 1,200 beds in four shelters in the area to accommodate the displaced.

The earthquake knocked out 69 power lines, affecting more than 121,000 households in the city, according to the Taiwan Power Co. Rail authorities said power cuts, not damage to tracks, was the reason for the suspension of train service. Water supply to about 400,000 households was interrupted.

Structural engineers told local media that it appeared the building where most of the deaths occurred may not have met earthquake standards, noting that photos taken before the quake show a base too narrow for a structure of such height in an active seismic zone. The Interior Ministry and Tainan’s mayor announced they would begin investigations into the building’s design and construction.

The quake, which hit at 3:57 a.m. Saturday local time, was particularly destructive because it was very shallow — about six miles underground — and the epicenter was on the island, not offshore, said U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Paul Caruso. People felt the earthquake as far away as mainland China, 100 miles to the west, across the Taiwan Strait. 

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Kate Chou, who runs a hostel in Tainan, said she was on her way to the bathroom when the shaking started.  

“The ground was not only moving sideways, but up and down as well. It felt like the Sept. 21 earthquake had come back,” she said, referring to Taiwan’s 7.6 magnitude quake in 1999 that killed about 2,500 people, the deadliest natural disaster in the island’s recent history.

“It was shorter than the Sept. 21 quake,” Chou added, “but for someone who had firsthand experience of the Sept. 21 quake, any trembling of the window or door could still seem ominous.”

Derek Hoerler, an elementary school teacher originally from California, said he woke up and felt violent shaking.

“It was not a rolling, gentle earthquake, but a violent, jerking motion. The walls were shaking, and you could hear the building and windows moving,” said Hoerler, who lives in New Taipei City and was visiting family in Kaohsiung when the quake hit. “It lasted at least a minute, with swaying afterward. I felt complete terror.

“Biggest earthquake I've felt, and I'm from California,” said Hoerler, 37, who is originally from Santa Clara.

Hoerler said he was in the Sacramento area when the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area in 1989, and he thought this temblor in Taiwan felt different.

“That was a rolling quake in ’89,” he said. “I remember seeing the pavement actually roll like a wave. The one in Taiwan felt like [the earth moved] up and down, side to side — violent jerking, like someone was shaking you hard.”

Lee Cheng-kuo, who lives in Kaohsiung, said the violent shaking woke him, his wife and their two sons. “Our stereo fell and hit our table really hard. Bottles and other stuff also fell,” he said. They immediately ran out of their house.

“Taiwan is in an earthquake zone, so we are all somehow experienced and alert to things of this kind,” he said. “Apartments are more damaged than houses. One-story houses like ours are better off,” he added, though water service was knocked out, making pre-holiday cleaning chores difficult.   

Prashant Kumar, an engineering student at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, said the quake left “huge cracks” in the pillars of his dormitory.

“I am afraid of another earthquake like that, and I don’t know what will happen to this building,” said Kumar, who is from near Kolkata, India.

Throughout the day Saturday, there were moments of elation as rescue efforts continued. Firefighters rescued a 7-year-old boy after following the cries of his cat, named Meow-meow, who stayed by his side after the quake struck, the Taiwan News said. Another woman was found after calling the fire department from her mobile phone and helping direct rescuers to her location.

The epicenter of the earthquake was under the central mountain range of Taiwan — about 27 miles southeast of Tainan and 24 miles northeast of Kaohsiung, the island's main port city. 

Taiwan sits in a collision zone between the Philippine Sea and the Eurasian plates and is seismically active.

Special correspondent Chan reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Times staff writers Makinen and Kaiman reported from Beijing and Tainan respectively. Rong-Gong Lin II in Los Angeles, Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau and special correspondent Chuan Xu, also in Beijing, contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

4:27 p.m.: This article was updated with 153 people reported missing.

9:32 a.m.: This article was updated with the latest casualty tolls and details of the rescue effort.

7:09 a.m.: This article was updated with a revised death toll.

3:42 a.m.: This article was updated with details on victims.

2:51 a.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll.

Feb. 6, 12:47 a.m.: This article was updated with a revised number of injured and new dateline.

11:35 p.m.: This article was updated with new details throughout.

9:23 p.m.: This article has been revised with additional updates and details. 

6:18 p.m.: This article was updated with the death toll rising to three and 115 hospitalized.

5:05 p.m.: This article was updated with at least two people killed.

3:49 p.m.: This article was updated with more buildings falling down and other details.

2:25 p.m.: This article was updated with information from teacher Derek Hoerler.

2:08 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting and information about collapsed buildings.

1:46 p.m.: This article was updated with more details.

This article was originally published at 1:10 p.m. Feb. 5.

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