EARTHQUAKE IN JAPAN: THE AFTERMATH: The city has the look of 100 Leanin g Towers of Pisa - a pile of dominoes

Horrendous as it was, the Kobe disaster could have been far, far worse. The quake struck at 5.46am, when most of the population was asleep or just starting to stir.

Although most of those who died were crushed inside their homes, or collapsed apartment buildings, authorities said the death toll would have been much higher during the working day. Even half an hour later, the elevated roads and railway tracks shreddedby the quake would have been filling with commuter traffic.

Most residents of Kobe and neighbouring cities, if they woke at all, were savagely shaken from their sleep. The reaction of a little boy, questioned last night in a school assembly hall where his family had been evacuated, was typical: "There was a tremendous crashing and I closed my eyes. Then I ran underneath a table and wrapped myself in a futon."

About 100,000 people spent last night in shelters, while authorities worked frantically to extinguish fires and restore vital services. On the outskirts of town, almost every house had collapsed. More than 7,000 houses were reported destroyed in the Kobearea alone. Throughout the night, the sky was lit with the eerie orange glow of dozens of fires.

Japanese television carried heart-wrenching scenes of people awaiting rescue. In footage from Osaka, the face of a woman was visible in the rubble. "I've been sitting in a small space here," she cried out in a feeble voice. "But my mother has bad legs and can't last much longer."

A fire in one old quarter of Kobe where many of the houses were made of wood, was defeating the efforts of firefighters 12 hours later. The government was coming under increasing criticism last night for the slowness of rescue efforts.

"I think rescue measures have been very slow," Professor Osamu Koide of Tokyo University said. "There was a lack of quake-preventive knowledge."

More aftershocks shook the region early yesterday and more were predicted for the coming week. Katsuyuki Abe of Tokyo University Seismology Institute said there was a 30 per cent chance that one would be nearly as strong as the first quake.

The scale of the disaster became evident with each live television despatch. These were interspersed with a lengthening table of the dead, their names read out punctiliously and without inflexion by an announcer. On the island of Awaji their ages varied from a few months' old baby, to a man of 85.

Almost uniformly, both Japanese victims and reporters showed extraordinary self-discipline and control of emotions. Only at midnight, as the truth sank in among the evacuees in gyms and assembly halls, without adequate food, water or heating, their homesdestroyed or too precarious to return to, did repressed anger and misery begin to show. Several people brushed away reporters. Many of those spending the night in shelters had fled their homes with nothing more than scanty nightclothes. "I brought no food with me," said a man interviewed by Japanese television as he huddled near a fire in a garbage bin in a parking lot. "But someone gave me food. We're all sharing everything."

One shivering middle-aged man refused to come indoors. "I don't want to go inside a building. It's cold, but I would rather stay outside than in a building that may collapse on top of me again."

Regular earthquake drills at school and the public exercise sponsored by the government every 1 September, the anniversary of the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, paid-off, although residents in western Japan, more innocent of the danger, seemed less stocked with "earthquake rations" than their Tokyo counterparts.

The Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, pledged decisive action in between offering his condolences to the dead. Kobe had not previously been considered a major centre of seismic activity, although several active faults run through the region, 450km (280

miles) west of Tokyo. The last serious quake to hit the area was a magnitude 6.1 quake in 1916.

"I never dreamed we would get hit by a quake like this here in Kobe," said a taxi driver, Rikihiro Sumino, who was hit in bed by a falling dresser but saved from serious injury by the padding of his blankets. "I figured it would happen in Tokyo, but never to us."

Other survivors were still dazed. "Where's the water, where's the food. What's going on," asked Kioyoko Terada, a housewife who had just lost her stepfather and stepmother after the second floor of their house fell to the ground. "There was a bang, then the furniture, the ceiling, the wall all seemed to fall at the same time. I looked up and saw the sky."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss