TAINAN, Taiwan – Rescuers raced to find additional survivors after a powerful, shallow earthquake struck southern Taiwan before dawn Saturday and collapsed a high-rise residential building, killing at least 11 people and injuring hundreds.
Nearly 340 people were rescued from the rubble in Tainan, the city hit worst by the quake. About 2,000 firefighters and soldiers scrambled with ladders, cranes and other equipment to the ruins of the 17-floor residential building, which folded like an accordion onto its side.
Wendy Chuang, a reporter in Taiwan, told CBS Radio News that the building was unrecognizable.
“Actually if no one told me, it’s hard to tell that’s a building because it just fell down and you can’t tell which way it fell down actually,” Chuang said. “You can’t find where’s the doors, where’s the front, where’s the back.”
It was unclear how many people were missing. Local media reports, citing families and friends, said more than 100 people were unaccounted for, but local authorities were not able to confirm the figures.
Local media said the building included a care center for newborns and mothers, and a newborn was among the dead in the disaster. The quake came two days before the start of Lunar New Year celebrations that mark the most important family holiday in the Chinese calendar.
Most people were caught asleep when the magnitude-6.4 earthquake occurred at about 4 a.m., 22 miles southeast of Yujing. It struck only 6 miles underground, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The building “first starting shaking horizontally, then up and down, then a big shake right to left,” said Tainan resident Lin Bao-gui, a secondhand car salesman whose cars were smashed when the residential complex across the street from him collapsed.
“I stayed in my bed but jumped up when I heard the big bang that was the sound of the building falling,” he said.
Taiwan’s emergency management information center said 11 people were killed, including nine who were found at the ruins of the fallen building. It said 475 people were injured, with 368 of them discharged from hospitals by Saturday evening.
Rescuers found the bodies of a 10-day-old infant, two young girls and six adults at the collapsed building. Authorities said two other people were killed by falling objects elsewhere in Tainan.
Rescuers pulled out 248 survivors from the building, the emergency management information center said.
Throughout Tainan, 337 people were rescued, the city government said.
The Taiwanese news website ET Today reported that a mother and daughter were among the survivors from the building, and that the girl drank her urine while waiting to be rescued, which happened sooner than expected.
Rescuers went apartment to apartment, drawing red circles near windows of apartments they already had searched.
“I went to the top floors of the middle part of the building, where we found five people, one of whom was in bed and already dead,” said Liu Wen-bin, a 50-year-old rescuer from Taichung. “Some people were found in the shower, some in the bedroom.”
Elsewhere in Tainan, dozens of other people were rescued or safely evacuated from damaged structures or buildings declared unsafe following the quake, including a market and a seven-floor building, authorities said. A bank building also careened, but no one was injured or trapped.
All told, nine buildings collapsed and five careened in Tainan, the emergency management information center said.
As dawn broke, Taiwanese TV showed survivors being brought gingerly from the high-rise, including an elderly woman in a neck brace and others wrapped in blankets. The trappings of daily life – a partially crushed air conditioner, pieces of a metal balcony, windows – lay twisted in rubble.
People with their arms around firefighters were being helped from the building, and cranes were being used to search darkened parts of the structure for survivors.
Men in camouflage, apparently military personnel, marched into one area of collapse carrying large shovels.
The emergency management information center said 1,236 rescuers from outside Tainan were deployed, including 840 from the army, along with six helicopters and 23 rescue dogs.
Tainan’s municipal government said it mobilized nearly 600 professional and volunteer firefighters.
The quake was felt as a lengthy, rolling shake in the capital, Taipei, on the other side of the island. But Taipei was quiet, with no sense of emergency or obvious damage just before dawn.
Residents in mainland China also reported that the tremor was felt there. The Beijing government offered to help as needed.
Because of the spectacular fall of the residential high-rise, questions surfaced about whether the 1989 structure had shoddy construction. Tainan’s government said the Wei Guan building was not listed as a dangerous structure before the quake, and Taiwan’s interior minister, Chen Wei-zen, said an investigation would examine whether the developer had cut corners during construction.
Earthquakes frequently rattle Taiwan, but most are minor and cause little or no damage. However, a magnitude-7.6 quake in central Taiwan in 1999 killed more than 2,300 people.