Aftershock so strong that it even cracked the city's main reservoir

EARTHQUAKE AFTERMATH Death toll rises past 2,000 as international teams join frantic search for survivors still trapped in collapsed buildings
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The Independent Online
IT WAS only one street and one of a myriad scenes just like it all across the mountain city of Puli, which sits almost directly above the epicentre of the earthquake that struck Taiwan in the early hours of Tuesday. As a giant digger probed the concrete facade of a ruined apartment building, its lower floors pancaked into rubble, about 30 soldiers waited patiently to begin the gruesome task of searching for bodies inside.

None wore hope on their faces. Even as dusk was beginning to fall across the city, they were about to undertake what was surely a forelorn task. Each had a brand new pickaxe as their only tool of excavation. If anyone remained alive in there, it would be a miracle for any of these men to find them.

But still yesterday in Puli, wraithed in the incongruous smell of hops and malt seeping from its ruined brewery, as well as in countless towns and villages damaged by the quake, the hunt for survivors continued. Already by nightfall, the death toll had climbed to 2,003 and was expected to go still higher today. Officials said that at least 2,600 remained trapped in rubble while another 4,400 had been injured.

Nor was their any respite from the terror of the quake, which registered 7.6 on the Richter scale, roughly equivalent to the shock that struck Turkey last month. Three more violent aftershocks shook the island yesterday, the first at 8.15 am, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale. They helped tumble more buildings that had already been weakened and sent hotels and office towers swaying all over again in the capital, Taipei. Frightened residents once more fled onto the streets fearing for their lives.

Government engineers said the aftershocks cracked the skin of Taiwan's giant Moon Lake reservoir, in the foothills of the mountains about 15 miles from Puli, itself about 150 miles south of Taipei. An emergency evacuation of the population beneath the reservoir's dam was underway last night.

Taiwan was like a nation under military mobilisation yesterday. The skies above Nantau County, where Puli is located, and Taichung County, two areas where the earthquake struck the hardest, were filled with helicopters bringing in emergency supplies. The road into this town from the coastal plains to the west was choked with vehicles bringing doctors, rescuers and additional supplies. The road itself was barely passable, its asphalt buckled into crazy undulations, tunnels partially blocked and bridges half destroyed.

While largely unscathed, Taipei was also witness to two frantic rescue operations. About 60 people were believed still buried beneath the crumpled ruins of the Sunshang Hotel in the downtown district, while the hunt went on beneath a large apartment tower that had toppled onto its side in a suburb. Power failed intermittently all day in the capital while it remained absent totally in other towns. In spite of all of the rescue efforts, only nine people were pulled alive from buildings all across the island yesterday.

In Tungshi, a town of 60,000 people just across a mountain range from Puli, almost every building had been damaged in the earthquake and yesterday's aftershocks. The town had no power, no water and all land links to the outside world had been severed. A community centre in the town had been converted into a morgue with about 100 bodies laid out and covered with saffron buddhist robes. Abut 500 lives are thought to have been lost in this single town alone.

The earthquake was capricious in choosing its victims. Just outside the main gates of what remained of the Puli brewery, a clock, with Rotary International proudly inscribed around it, was still ticking last night and telling the correct time. All over town, there were sites where neighbouring buildings had suffered contrasting fates. Where one was levelled, the one next to it was standing undamaged. In some cases, just the side walls of the surviving structures had been ripped away, to reveal the intimate details of lives brutally interrupted. A leather sofa before a TV set, a bed, its blankets and pillows undisturbed.

Navigating the streets of Puli was occasionally impossible. Drunken structures leaned dangerously across streets, many appearing to defy the last natural pull of gravity. Some alleyways were bisected by avalanches of bricks, concrete and glass from a building that had succumbed entirely. And throughout the city, milled thousands of dazed residents. Some congregated in long queues, hoping to collect their rations of water and food. Others were setting up camp for another night in the open air. Two westerners came into view down one alley, both riding bicycles. "Hello, can I help you with anything?" The young men, Adam and Zachary, were Mormon missionaries, one from Idaho, the other from Utah.

At one crossroads, 60-year-old Juo Hung-Shung, his feet and face slashed with cuts, stood staring at what remained of his family home. Once five- floors tall, it had tipped and twisted into a heap, its roof now facing directly on to the street. "I had to crawl out as I had lost my sense of direction. Finally, I saw car lights passing by and I found my way towards them," he recalled. It was nine hours before he found his wife and dragged her on to the street, still alive but both her feet crushed from falling masonry.

Juo, who also saw his store levelled just across the road, has been offered shelter by some friends nearby. On this night, however, he was planning to sleep in the open, on blankets spread across the pavement. "I am too frightened to go inside. You never know when it is going to happen again," he said.

Mixed with the green camouflage uniforms of soldiers, were thronging rescue teams all dressed in red jumpsuits. Brought in from buses from all over Taiwan, these men were roaming Puli all day, suddenly deploying from one ruined building to another, always in the hope of finding some sign of life beneath the concrete. The city had given them maps, which they would occasionally unfold in the middle of the road to remind themselves of where they were then and where they had already been to search.

"It's so hard. Look at that building," said David Chu, pointing at what used to be a bank. The ground floor where the customers used to be welcomed had been squashed to a thin layer of rubble. "There are so many like this and there is really nothing we can do". On this day, he had found 50 dead bodies. How many survivors had he been able to bring out? "Not one," he replies. "I' m so sorry".

At dusk, a lady who identified herself only as Mrs Wu, was trying to make dinner for her family of six on a camping stove in the narrow strip of green that is the town's central park. She and her husband had spread cardboard over the grass and a blue plastic tarpaulin was draped over their heads from the branches of a tree. Last night, about 100,000 were sleeping without proper shelter across Taiwan.