THE EARTHQUAKE that shook Taiwan on Tuesday did more than reveal the unpredictably of the rock beneath it. Apparently also exposed were the sins of building contractors who chose to fill the walls of apartment towers not with bricks but with plastic bottles.
Yesterday the government announced that it had gathered some 1,000 architects and engineers to investigate why the tremor, big as it was at 7.6 on the Richter scale, had been so selective. Even in the hardest-hit areas, buildings that collapsed are in the shadow of others showing barely a crack.
Suspicion that blame for some of the destruction may lie with cowboy contractors who ignored building codes designed to protect against quake damage have been awakened by some unexpected discoveries, such as the walls filled with such materials as plastic bottles and metal buckets.
Tseng Yung-fu, Vice-Justice Minister, said a contractor had been arrested in connection with a crumpled building in the central Yunlin county. Officials said other contractors faced arrest in coming days as the investigation widened.
A helicopter flight yesterday showed how capricious the earthquake had been.
While most of the skyline of Tengshou, a city of 90,000, remained perfectly vertical, for example, a relatively small number of high-rise towers had succumbed. One, which had been 22 storeys high and only recently built, had torn itself intact from the stumps of its foundations and come to rest almost horizontally on smaller structures beside it.
Equally dramatic was the view of Shihtu reservoir, several miles above the coastal city of Taichung. Water was gushing through a huge breach and the dam was almost empty.
All across the region open public areas such as sports grounds, school yards and parks were crammed with tents and makeshift shelters thrown up by the 80,000 Taiwanese who are still believed to be homeless.
Officials last night put the death toll at 2,109. They sharply reduced the numbers to be buried beneath rubble to 306 people, from more than 2,000 on Wednesday.
More aftershocks rippled through Taiwan yesterday, one measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale. Seismologists said the island had been hit by 4,300 aftershocks by last night, with more expected to come.
The government turned down an offer by China to send quake specialists to help with the clean-up. Officials said no political snub was meant. But many here suspect China's motives in offering help at a time of heightened political tension between Taipei and Peking.
Fears are growing over the possible spread of disease among those made homeless and who remain cut off from help. Some towns were struggling to deal with the number of bodies. "Many mortuaries have no electricity. They can't keep the bodies refrigerated and aren't accepting corpses. We also need coffins," said Hugh Lin, who is directing the island-wide rescue operation from Taipei.
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