City burns as quake toll rises to 1,800

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The Independent Online
The most devastating earthquake to strike a Japanese city in 70 years left more than 1,800 confirmed dead last night and 1,000 missing, believed trapped under the rubble.

Twenty-four hours after the quake, which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, the sky above the port of Kobe was still crimson with flame. Efforts to control 150 fires were hampered by shattered water mains. Authorities were planning to use helicopters today to bomb the fires with water from Osaka Bay.

As night fell, and criticism grew of the slowness of the official response, rescuers dug through rubble with their bare hands. "We are still calling out to people in case they are trapped. But we are getting fewer and fewer answers," one rescue official said. "We just keep calling out. . . What else can we do." It was reported that 45 people had been pulled from the rubble of a collapsed hospital.

The scale of the disaster stunned a country which regarded itself as better defended against earthquakes than other nations. Searching questions are being asked about the fragility of some relatively-new buildings, road and railways declared quake-proof.There was also deepening anger about cumbersome relief efforts.

The cities of Osaka and Kyoto were badly damaged by the 20-second, pre-dawn earthquake, but the worst-hit by far was Kobe, Japan's fifth largest city, with 1.5 million inhabitants. The centre was turned into a ghost city with hundreds of people wanderingin the icy cold in search of shelter, warmth, food and water.

About 140,000 people were forced to spend the night in makeshift shelters. Many had seen their houses flattened or consumed by fire. All complained of little or nothing to eat or drink. Authorities said 6,000 people had been injured and at least 8,000 houses destroyed in the Kobe area alone.

Fatalities would have been far worse had the earthquake not struck at 5.46am when most people were still asleep, and the roads and railways empty. None the less, the disaster exposed the vulnerability of Japanese cities to earthquakes, especially along the "urban corridor" from Tokyo to Kobe on the Pacific coast.

Most of the damage was to wooden houses and flimsy structures. But an elevated motorway built in 1966 keeled over after supporting pillars snapped; modern high-rise buildings toppled; whole stretches of railway bedding for the elevated "shinkansen" bullet train lines fell away; and one floor of a hospital crumpled and disappeared. Electricity, gas, and water supplies, telephone and railway services were severed or disrupted.

After the earthquake that struck Los Angeles exactly a year before, on 17 January 1994, many Japanese had congratulated themselves that their buildings and infrastructure were of superior standard. The Los Angeles earthquake caused billions of dollars ofdamage, and the repair bill for yesterday's earthquake is likely to be even higher. Utility and construction companies soared in value yesterday on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in anticipation of huge rebuilding contracts.

The head of the Japanese government's advisory panel of seismologists warned yesterday of another earthquake, with a magnitude of 6 or more, striking the same area soon.