Survivors recall escape from leaning Taiwan apartment block

Rescue workers block off the area outside a building which tilted to one side after its foundation collapsed in Hualien after a strong 6.4-magnitude quake rocked eastern Taiwan. (Paul Yang, AFP)
Rescue workers block off the area outside a building which tilted to one side after its foundation collapsed in Hualien after a strong 6.4-magnitude quake rocked eastern Taiwan. (Paul Yang, AFP)

Hualien – Chen Chih-wei only realised an earthquake had struck when his apartment suddenly turned on its side.

The 80-year-old resident was fast asleep when a 6.4-magnitude tremor hit the Taiwanese city of Hualien just before midnight on Tuesday.

"Everything fell down. My bed was completely vertical, I was sleeping and suddenly I was standing," he told AFP.

Chen lived with his daughter on the top floor of the Yun Tsui apartment block where at least four people were killed as the building's lower floors collapsed, leaving the structure leaning dangerously at a 40 degree angle.

Engineers were frantically trying to reinforce the building on Wednesday, drafting in huge concrete blocks and steel bars to stop any further collapse as rescuers carried out the dangerous task of searching the shattered concrete structure for survivors.

Chen said he managed to make his way to his apartment balcony to await rescue but it was no easy task for an octogenarian who said he was used to quakes on an island that lies on a tectonically active faultline.

"It (the apartment) was completely slanted and there was no way to stand. My floor is very slick so I crawled and slid my way out," he recalled.

Another elderly resident, who declined to give his name, described a similar ordeal of trying to crawl through a destroyed flat suddenly turned on its side.

"The closets, shelf, table, they all toppled," he said. "It was hard to crawl from my bed, and there was all this stuff piled up. My feet stepped in water because the pipes burst."

"It was a waste of money to buy this house nine years ago," he added.

Rescue operations

Chang Fa-an, one of the building's managing staff, said he was surprised the apartment block had failed to withstand a 6.4 quake.

"When the building was first built, the units were quite expensive, the highest in the area," he told AFP.

He said staff routinely checked for cracks after previous quakes and had never found any.

One female resident watching rescue operations, who declined to give her name, wondered out loud whether recent construction work might have weakened the building.

Some residents, she said, had bought neighbouring flats inside the building and knocked down walls to create bigger dwellings. A restaurant on the first floor had recently been turned into an open plan eatery, she added.

Most of those rescued appeared to have survived the initial quake and were quickly reached overnight.

Rescue operations continued on Wednesday afternoon under drizzling skies and officials said four bodies were recovered throughout the day.

Residents occasionally came back to check on the progress as volunteer groups handed out warm meat buns in the chilly winter weather. Others set up a table with congee (rice porridge) and sushi rolls.

A growing list of pets were also rescued from the complex including a pug, a golden retriever, a cat and some birds.

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