The preliminary magnitude of the quake was put at 7.6 on the Richter scale, making it stronger than the earthquake that ripped through Turkey last month, claiming up to 40,000 lives. Taiwan's quake was the worst to hit the island in more than 30 years. Stewart Koyanagi, of the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center, said: "This is a major earthquake. This is similar in size to Turkey."
Government officials said at least 64 people had died, 289 were injured and 731 were trapped or buried under debris all over the island. The quake struck at 1.47am local time, when most people were already sleeping.
One of the worst-hit structures, and one of the main areas where rescue efforts were directed, was the 12-storey Sungshan Hotel, in Taipei. The shock wave collapsed the bottom three storeys of the hotel, leaving it listing grotesquely, while trapped residents signalled from the windows of shattered rooms. Fire crews on elevated platforms had to douse the building continuously to keep fires under control while the rescuers worked. Sixty people were still feared trapped in the building, with 49 people already evacuated and sent to hospital and another 11 people evacuated uninjured.
A woman pulled from the wreckage said: "I lived on the ninth floor, but now it's the fourth floor."
Severe damage was reported in the town of Puli, near the quake epicentre, but details were sketchy. An explosion was reported at the town's major business, a rice wine distillery.
In contrast to the Turkish earthquake, the authorities appeared to react swiftly, and those rescued, many in their sleeping garments, even managed to walk from buildings, carrying belongings.
The epicentre of the earthquake is believed to have been in Nantou, in central Taiwan, more than 60 miles south-west of Taipei. Injuries and damage were still being assessed last night, but Taiwan's Information Minister, CJ Chen, told CNN the damage was "scattered and extensive".
Taipei, the largest city in Taiwan, with 2.6 million residents, has some of the most advanced earthquake-proof buildings in the world. Its residents are accustomed to frequent earth tremors but were still shocked by the violence with which the quake struck.
Dirk Kempthorne, a politician from Idaho who was visiting Taipei as part of a trade mission, said he was sleeping in a top-floor room at the 25-storey Grant Hyatt Regency hotel in Taipei when the quake hit: "I think many of us thought we might be done for."
Mr Kempthorne said the quake began as a gentle swaying, "and then it increased in intensity until you were virtually thrown from the bed". The main earthquake was followed by several aftershocks, and electricity was cut off in most parts of the island.
President Lee Teng-hui urged people to stay calm and reassured the public that the government had mobilised all its resources to handle the disaster.
In the south-western Chiang Kai-shek district, some people brought candles into the street. Many carried umbrellas to keep off the rain and huddled around radios.
The Broadcasting Corporation of China later reported that a row of houses collapsed in Chang Hua county, in central Taiwan, injuring at least three people. Ten others were believed trapped in the wreckage, the radio said.