Taiwan quake: Rescue efforts continue for 600 stranded in Hualien

While those trapped in buildings in Hualien City have all been rescued, rescuers are still searching for those cut off in the gorges, including dozens of hotel employees at a resort in Taroko National Park.

Yip Wai Yee

Yip Wai Yee

The Straits Times


The Uranus Building (centre) has since become the face of the earthquake after it tilted heavily to one side. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

April 5, 2024

HUALIEN – One day after Taiwan’s strongest earthquake in 25 years triggered landslides and toppled buildings, the eastern city of Hualien near the epicentre was unusually quiet for a long weekend.

Known for being the base for travellers to visit Hualien county’s picturesque Taroko National Park, the city is a popular travel destination with tourists, hikers and cyclists.

But on the first day of the four-day holiday on April 4 – which is both Children’s Day and the Qing Ming Festival, when families gather to honour the departed – many of the city’s streets downtown were empty.

Taxi driver and tour guide Sung Kun-yi, 45, said that many tourists had “understandably” cancelled their trips after the county saw severe damage following the 7.4-magnitude earthquake that has killed 10 people and injured more than 1,000.

Local reports said tour and hotel operators in the southern county of Pingtung, where the island’s sandy white Kenting beaches are situated, have since been inundated with booking requests from holidaymakers who wish to skip Hualien.

More than 300 aftershocks continued to hit Taiwan on the day of the earthquake. Many were felt strongly in Hualien City, including by Mr Sung, who said he did not dare to sleep “too soundly” that night in case he needed to evacuate.

“As Hualien residents, we are used to earthquakes because they happen so often here. But none made me as scared as the one on April 3 because it was the strongest I’ve felt in a long time,” he said.

When the earthquake struck waters off Hualien county before 8am that morning, Mr Sung had been driving a schoolteacher to work.

“My car shook so intensely that I thought a tyre had burst. My passenger cried,” he said.

At the 10-storey residential block downtown known as the Uranus Building, which has since become the face of the earthquake after it tilted heavily to one side, several roads leading to it have been cut off. Dozens of restaurants and shops in its vicinity have also been closed.

Earlier, news footage showed how rescuers had plucked residents from the building using a cherry picker. Local reports said that one resident died after going back inside to rescue her pet cat after initially escaping.

On the evening of April 4, a resident rode her scooter up to the police tape surrounding the area and asked security guards if she could be let through to retrieve her belongings. She was turned away after being told that it would not be safe.

Speaking to The Straits Times, the 29-year-old, who wished to be known only by her nickname Cheng-cheng, said that she had left behind important documents, including her university certificates.

“My apartment was not fancy but it was home. I can’t believe it’s gone just like that,” she said.

Early inspections by structural engineers and the Hualien District Prosecutors Office found the building to be what is known as a “soft-leg” construction, which means that it lacked essential pillar support. Plans are under way for the building to be torn down on April 5.

In another part of the city, the Hualien Hero House hotel was also sealed off after the earthquake caused significant damage to its facade.

One section of the wall had large holes, while decorative stone sculptures in the front crumbled. A lone security guard sitting in a tent across the road shouted at anyone who walked too close to stay away.

While those trapped in buildings in Hualien city have all been rescued, rescuers are still searching for more than 600 people cut off in the surrounding gorges, including dozens of hotel employees who had been travelling to work at a resort in Taroko National Park when the quake struck.

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