Inside the ruin that was once a city

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The Independent Online
Theground and mezzanine floors of Kobe City Hall, brightly lit in the middle of the night, are covered by hundreds of people huddled under blankets - survivors of Tuesday's earthquake, which, according to the latest toll, has claimed more than 3,0

00 lives.

The hall is one of few buildings in the centre of the port city to have any electricity. Red eyes staring listlessly out of dejected faces meet the embarrassed glance of a curious reporter just arrived form Tokyo.

One family attempts a zone of privacy by making walls around themselves with cardboard boxes. Neighbours from a nearby 10-floor apartment building, which escaped serious damage in Tuesday's earthquake, are spending the night in the lobby under a male nude statue, The Age of Bronze by Auguste Rodin, because they are frightened to return in case of another quake.

One of them, a middle-aged man, shows me his swollen feet, cut by glass from a fallen light fixture, when before dawn on Tuesday he dashed to protect his young son inside their rocking flat.

He was lucky. I thought of the 33-year-old woman on Awaji Island, lying in a row of white wood coffins as Buddhist priests chanted funeral sutras. She had thrown herself over a three-year-old child. The mother was killed when a heavy chest of drawers fell on her but the child lived.

Arriving in Kobe at 2am, I first picked my way past fire engines and ambulances down side streets towards the Oriental Hotel, formerly one of the finest in Japan.

Apart form the occasional blare of sirens, all was quiet, except for the crunching of my feet on glass from shattered windows. I recognised the devastated post office only by its sign. The old City Hall had collapsed in the middle, like a sandwich cake sat upon at a picnic. Another tall building had a dangerous bulge liable to explode in glass and concrete at any minute.

The ground-floor windows of the Oriental Hotel, next to which the prettiest girls in Kobe used to dawdle over coffee in fragile porcelain cups while watching the world pass by, were covered with plastic sheets. A huge crack ran up the hotel tower, and ornamental tiles had fallen on to the street.

Only with the greatest difficulty had I found a taxi driver intrepid enough to attempt the run into Kobe. The route along Osaka Bay to Kobe lies for the most part directly underneath the Hanshin motorway, destined to be most enduring emblem of the earthquake. Where it has not collapsed or keeled over on its side, this giant flyover could easily fall at any moment on top of speeding cars and ambulances on the road beneath.

Fleeing the ruins, page 12