Taiwan Earthquake: Gawpers stop and stare at a tragedy that is yet unfinished

NOBODY WHO lives in Taiwan is allowed ever to ignore the power of the Earth. Tremors jolt the island almost monthly but rarely cause great damage. Their epicentres are usually to the east, in the Pacific, and for decades buildings have been designed to prevent them tumbling down. But yesterday, at 1.47am, a different kind of shaking began.

Eric Chen, an engineering student, was reading in his fifth-floor apartment in Taipei when it started and he understood at once the peril he was in: "The lights started to flicker, gradually." That was not meant to happen - in Taipei the electricity grid is meant to be protected from even the most serious quakes. But on this night it failed.

"Then the building started to move, not up and down, but left to right," Mr Chen said. "I was afraid, because I was thinking about the earthquake in Turkey." A Buddhist, he pulled his prayer bead bracelet from his wrist and clasped it. "It was the only thing I could do to help myself, just pray."

Everyone in Taipei last night had their own version of those moments. And almost each one spoke of Turkey, such as the taxi-driver who was so scared he pulled over as his car bounced on its springs. He watched as other cars veered and crashed before everyone finally stopped.

Mr Chen remembers the first shock going on for about 20 seconds; then he felt four more tremors of about five seconds each. It was 20 minutes before it was all over.

Many last night were feeling lucky, however. The city was partially in darkness as the electricity company rushed to restore power. But the damage here is mostly slight. The roads were filled with scooters and residents jostled on pavements, sometimes stopping where a television was on to stare at the latest pictures of destruction.

They were images Taiwan hoped it would never see. But even the strongest structures can succumb when a quake measures 7.6 on the Richter scale, slightly more powerful than the one in Turkey.

Worst hit were areas around the city of Taichung, 90 miles from the capital. As the death-toll - 5,000 are feared dead - rises, this is the region where losses will be most cruel. High-rises, thrown up to accommodate an exploding population, leaned at crazy angles.

Only one factor saved Taiwan from greater destruction: experts calculated the source of the quake was 25 miles deep inside the Earth. In Turkey, the quake last month was only five miles deep.

In Taipei they did not need to look at television to understand the force of this earthquake, the most powerful to strike since 1935, when an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale left 3,276 people dead. Instead, they had only to travel to the neighbourhood of Sungshan and to gape at what remained of the Sungshan Hotel.

It was as if the quake had singled out this one building among thousands in the capital. All around it, everything is as it was a day before. To the right, dresses are still on display in the windows of the Superstar International Wedding Shop. To its right, the tall brown brick building that is home to a maths college is undamaged. Or at least it would be except that the hotel is resting against it an angle of about 45 degrees. What remains of it.

There is no telling that it was once 12 storeys high. It looks like the victim of a demolition effort gone wrong. Only the top five floors remain, atop a mound of steel and rubble. The right-hand wall has been torn from the stump of what was once below, reinforced steel cables ripped apart. Almost 20 hours after the quake struck, the building was smouldering. Fire engines sprayed water on its sides, but aimed away from the gaping windows, where rescuers were roaming inside.

Hundreds of gawpers had crammed into the narrow entrance of a shopping arcade opposite the hotel, held back by soldiers and plastic tape. The missing windows revealed the flotsam of calamity. A fake-leather sofa still in position in the centre of a room in spite of the steep angle of the floor.

But we were staring at a tragedy still not completed. Early yesterday about a hundred people still alive were dragged clear of the hotel. But last night rescuers feared at least 50 more were trapped inside. Many, surely, had perished. But some were still alive. We knew this because seven people, still not accounted for, had telephoned to the outside world on mobile phones.

A Japanese rescue team tried to take dogs in at about 8.30pm to help locate anyone still living. The dogs, three black labradors, and the men belonged to the Japanese Rescue Association, formed after the Kobe earthquake of 1995. They had flown in from Osaka yesterday morning. But their efforts came to nothing. "It's so difficult because of the smoke," Naoteka Oyama, the team leader, said. "The smoke makes it impossible for the dogs to work."

Mr Chen, the student, was also on the scene. At daybreak he joined friends who belong to an organisation called Buddhist Co-operation Relief to help provide food and water to the rescue workers at the hotel. Yards from where the soldiers, firemen and police were working, they had set up a small tent to welcome those needing rest. Every minute crates of food and bottled water were ferried to the hotel site.

The death-toll at the Sungshan Hotel may be worse than it needed to be, because of the instinct many probably had to flee downstairs towards street level when the first tremors hit.

Yet it was only those who had stayed in the top few floors who could possibly have survived. "I crawled out like a mouse," one survivor, 81- year-old Chen Chih-Yun, told reporters. "You can't imagine how terrible it was."

Earlier, a woman clambered out, yelling to the rescue teams to rush into the wreckage. "Hurry, go save people; they're in there," she called out. "They're inside. "I lived on the ninth floor, but now it's the fourth floor."

Some crushed behind the police lines near the hotel late last night were more than just onlookers. Some had relatives and friends still inside. "Please, please," one woman cried out in despair to anyone who would listen. "I beg you, help my daughter; she's inside."

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