Rescuers in Taiwan searched badly damaged buildings early Thursday, looking for scores of people missing after a powerful earthquake hit the island’s east coast.
The magnitude-6.4 quake struck at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday and was centered 14 miles northeast of the coastal city of Hualien. The shaking was felt across Taiwan, but in Hualien the force was disastrous, collapsing walls and leaving buildings resting at alarming angles.
On Thursday officials put the toll at eight dead, ranging in age from 37 to 66, and 63 others missing. Many of the missing were believed to be trapped in the 12-story Yun Men Tsui Ti building, which housed a small hotel, apartments and a hot-pot restaurant. About 196 people have been rescued so far from that building and three others.
About 800 people went to bed in shelters on Wednesday: nearly 500 at the Hualien Gymnasium and more than 300 at the Chunghwa Primary School. Their homes had been destroyed or damaged, or they were fearful about the frequent and occasionally strong aftershocks that have regularly jolted the area since the quake.
At the school, people slept bundled up in heavy blankets and wearing coats and caps.
“It wasn’t a normal earthquake, there have been more than 100 aftershocks,” said Wu Ching-hua, 62, a native of Hualien who woke early Thursday at the school. “We’ve had bigger quakes here many times before, but the aftershocks taper off gradually. Right now we don’t know what will happen.”
Mr. Wu’s daughter persuaded him to leave his home, in a five-story building next to a taller structure that she feared might topple.
Fan Chen-yuan, 30, was working the graveyard shift as a volunteer at the school.
“Twenty seconds after the main quake, a large aftershock followed, and I couldn’t sleep,” he recalled in an interview.
An hour later Mr. Fan, an employee of the city government, was volunteering at the arena, the first of the two shelters to open. “Lots of people ran out into the street after the quake, and they weren’t willing to go back into their homes,” he said.
Aside from the four toppled buildings, however, he said he had not heard of much significant damage, except for the odd wall falling over.
Hualien residents are used to earthquakes and typhoons, Mr. Fan said, but this time was different. “Everyone’s a bit tense,” he said.
Standing next to piles of medical supplies, food and water donated by local groups and individuals as well as from around Taiwan, Mr. Fan said the prompt outpouring of help showed that “Taiwanese will look after their countrymen.”
Another volunteer, Lin Hsin-hsuan, who came to help with two friends from neighboring Yilan County, prepared soup and rice noodles for police officers and firefighters working in the cold rain early Thursday morning at the Yun Men Tsui Ti building.
Under what was once the building’s ground floor, rescuers continued to work among gnarled rebar, bricks and other debris, as humming generators powered emergency flood lights.
The gray tile and glass building sits next to a park along the Meilun River. The authorities believe that more than 200 people were in the building during the quake, which flattened parts of its lower levels and left it leaning precariously. So far, the bodies of four of the dead have been pulled from the building, and dozens of survivors have been rescued there.
Rescuers used steel supports to prop up the listing building. Their efforts were halted temporarily Wednesday as the supports began to slide and the building tilted more, local officials said.
The bottom floors of another building, the Marshal Hotel, also collapsed. One person was killed there and two were missing, officials said.
Taiwan sits at the intersection of the Philippine Sea tectonic plate, which is moving west at about three inches a year, and the Eurasian plate, which extends east from mainland China. It experiences frequent seismic activity.
Two strong earthquakes of magnitude 5.3 and 6.1 were recorded within 45 minutes of each other on Sunday night near Hualien. The pattern of seismic activity that followed was stronger than anything that had previously been recorded in the area, Chen Kuo-chang, the acting director of the Central Weather Bureau’s Seismology Center, told the Central News Agency.
The mountainous east coast of Taiwan is less populated than its flatter western side. The region is known for its natural beauty. Hualien is close to Taroko National Park, where the famous Taroko Gorge cuts down through the mountains to the sea.