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."

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