Rescuers search for survivors after powerful earthquake in Japan

Published 15.04.2016 10:17
Updated 15.04.2016 10:26
An injured person is carried by rescuers near a damaged house caused by an earthquake in Mashiki town, Kumamoto prefecture, southern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo April 15, 2016 (Reuters Photo)
An injured person is carried by rescuers near a damaged house caused by an earthquake in Mashiki town, Kumamoto prefecture, southern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo April 15, 2016 (Reuters Photo)

Rescuers were scrambling to find survivors Friday after a powerful earthquake in southern Japan that left at least nine people dead and hundreds injured, sparking fires and buckling roads.

Tens of thousands of people fled their homes after the 6.5-magnitude quake struck the southwestern island of Kyushu on Thursday night, leaving lumps of broken concrete strewn in the streets.

Houses collapsed, factories stopped work and a high-speed train was de-railed, while the roof of the treasured Kumamoto castle in the southern city of the same name was also damaged.

"The house shook up and down," said Nobuyuki Morita, 67, a resident of the worst hit town of Mashiki in Kumamoto prefecture, adding that he was watching TV at home when the quake struck.

"I was really surprised," he said. "I had never experienced such a big quake since I was born."

He and his wife spent the night in their car as the roof of their house had collapsed and furniture toppled over.

Dozens of aftershocks followed the quake, which hit about 9:26 pm (1226 GMT) on Thursday evening, and officials warned the death toll could rise as rescuers scoured the collapsed structures.

As rescue workers toiled through the night, an eight-month-old baby girl was pulled from the rubble alive and unharmed, NHK reported.

"As far as we can tell from infrared images from a police helicopter, there appears to be a significant number of houses destroyed or half-collapsed," said disaster minister Taro Kono.

"There are fears the number of injured could rise."

Rescuers are concentrating their searches in Mashiki, near the epicentre of the quake where the most deaths have been recorded.

On the streets, the remains of collapsed Japanese-style houses -- many of then aged, wooden structures -- could be seen, and damaged roof tiles lay in piles.

A rescue team with several search dogs patrolled around half-collapsed houses in the town.

But no new deaths have been announced for more than eight hours, suggesting that many among the thousands forced to flee their collapsed or unstable homes may have escaped alive.

Scores of people spent the night huddled in front of Mashiki's town hall, some in tears, while others wrapped themselves in blankets to ward off the nighttime chill.

"I'm so scared of the aftershocks that I cannot sleep," 94-year-old Tomiko Takahashi told Jiji Press.

- Nuclear plants safe -

By Friday morning, the government said it had confirmed at least 860 people had been injured, at least 53 seriously. An official from the local Kumamoto disaster agency said at least nine were dead.

"We are combing through Mashiki where the damage was serious to see if there are any people who are still seeking rescue," said government spokesman Yoshihide Suga.

Gen Aoki, a Japan Meteorological Agency seismologist, urged residents to be on guard for more aftershocks and warned rain in coming days could make the situation worse.

"Please do not go near damaged houses and structures that are about to collapse," he said at an early morning briefing.

About 57,000 households in Kumamoto prefecture have been left without water, according to local government figures.

Nuclear plants in the region were unaffected, but several major manufacturers including Honda, Bridgestone, and Sony said they had suspended operations at factories in the area.

Train services on Kyushu were temporarily halted after Thursday's earthquake and a super fast bullet train derailed -- luckily while it was empty -- said Yusuke Nanri, a spokesman for operator JR Kyushu.

Some 1,600 military personnel were joined by nearly 2,000 police officers and more than 1,300 firefighters to help in the search and rescue efforts, Suga said early Friday.

The initial quake, which struck at a shallow depth of 10 kilometres (6.2 miles), was followed two and a half hours later by another measuring 6.4 magnitude, according to Japan's meteorological agency. The US Geological Survey measured it a smaller 6.2 magnitude.

In total, more than 100 earthquakes rocked the region after the first hit, and officials warned this could continue for a week or so.

Japan, one of the most seismically active countries in the world, suffered a massive undersea quake on March 11, 2011 that sent a tsunami barrelling into the country's northeast coast.

Some 18,500 people were left dead or missing, and several nuclear reactors went into meltdown at the Fukushima plant in the worst atomic accident in a generation.

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