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Taiwan rocked by biggest earthquake in 25 years with nine confirmed dead

At least nine people were killed and more than 900 injured when Taiwan’s biggest earthquake in 25 years rocked the island during the morning rush hour, prompting authorities to issue tsunami warnings.

Massive landslides were triggered and buildings were left tilting at precarious angles after the 7.2 magnitude quake, which struck just offshore at about 8am local time.

Videos showed people experiencing violent shaking across Taiwan and there appears to be extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. Multiple buildings in Hualien, a relatively sparsely populated city popular with tourists, appeared heavily damaged, with photographs showing nine-storey buildings leaning at a 45-degree angle.

A partially collapsed building in Hualien (AP)
A partially collapsed building in Hualien (AP)

At least 77 people were trapped in buildings or under the debris of partially collapsed structures, the Taiwanese government said on Wednesday afternoon. A dozen people were rescued from a building in New Taipei City after its foundations sank deep into the ground.

“Today was the first time I was scared to tears by an earthquake,” a Taipei resident, who was sleeping in her fifth-floor apartment,” told the Associated Press. “I was awakened by the earthquake. I had never felt such intense shaking before.”

Three hikers were killed by falling rocks on the Dekalun Trail in Taroko National Park in Hualien. A fourth victim has been identified as a truck driver, who died after rocks crushed his vehicle near a tunnel.

The effects of the earthquake were felt in mainland China and as far away as Taiwanese-controlled islands off the coast of China, said Wu Chien-fu, the head of Taiwan’s earthquake monitoring bureau.

Multiple aftershocks, one measuring 6.5 magnitude near Hualien, were also felt in the capital Taipei, the agency said.

Rescuers work at a partially collapsed building (VCG via Getty Images)
Rescuers work at a partially collapsed building (VCG via Getty Images)

At least 87,000 households were left without electricity on the island due to a disruption in supply following the powerful jolts.

Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines have issued tsunami warnings, with waves as high as three metres initially expected to hit the remote Japanese island group of Okinawa.

Authorities in Taiwan issued warnings through text messages to “remind people in coastal areas to be vigilant and take strict precautions and pay attention to the dangers caused by sudden surges in waves”.

A damaged apartment following the earthquake, in New Taipei City (Reuters)
A damaged apartment following the earthquake, in New Taipei City (Reuters)

Japan’s Self Defence Force has sent planes to the area to gather information about the tsunami impact around the Okinawa region, and said it was preparing shelters for evacuation, if necessary.

Japan later downgraded the tsunami advisory, reducing the height of waves expected to one metre. The first tsunami waves of at least 30 centimetres arrived at Yonaguni Island at 9.18am local time, authorities said.

All tsunami warnings were eventually lifted.

A building is partially collapsed after a powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Taiwan (VCG via Getty Images)
A building is partially collapsed after a powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Taiwan (VCG via Getty Images)

All flight operations have been suspended at Naha airport in Okinawa following the tsunami warning.

The Philippine government asked people in coastal areas to immediately evacuate to higher ground as the islands braced for “high tsunami waves”. Villagers in Batanes, Cagayan, Ilocos Norte and Isabela were asked not to return to their homes until the tsunami alert was lifted.

High-speed rail services across Taiwan’s main island were suspended following the quake, as was the subway network in Taipei. But witnesses said things quickly returned to normal in the capital, with children going to school and the morning commute continuing.

“I wanted to run out but I wasn’t dressed. That was so strong,” Kelvin Hwang, a guest at a downtown hotel, told AFP.

People gathering in the lobby of the Taipei 101 office building (CNA/AFP via Getty Images)
People gathering in the lobby of the Taipei 101 office building (CNA/AFP via Getty Images)

The island’s national legislature, based in a converted school built before the Second World War, had damage to walls and ceilings.

Schools evacuated their students to sports fields, equipping them with yellow safety helmets. Some also covered themselves with textbooks to guard against falling objects as aftershocks continued.

Traffic along the east coast was brought to a virtual standstill, with landslides and falling debris hitting tunnels and highways in the mountainous region.

An employee clears broken bottles on the floor of a supermarket in Yilan (CNA/AFP via Getty Images)
An employee clears broken bottles on the floor of a supermarket in Yilan (CNA/AFP via Getty Images)

President Tsai Ing-wen has offered condolences and pressed soldiers into the rescue and recovery effort. “The national army will provide support in response to the needs of local governments to ensure the safety of people’s lives and property,” she said on Facebook.

Taiwan’s president-elect Lai Ching-te rushed to Hualien to take stock of the situation, while the president oversaw operations from Taipei.

Taiwan’s air force sent C-130 aircraft to carry out disaster relief operations (Anadolu via Getty Images)
Taiwan’s air force sent C-130 aircraft to carry out disaster relief operations (Anadolu via Getty Images)

Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida said he was “deeply saddened” by the earthquake and offered “to provide any assistance necessary”.

The quake is the largest to hit Taiwan since one in 1999 caused extensive damage and killed around 2,400 people.

Taiwan lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, the line of seismic faults encircling the Pacific Ocean where most of the world’s earthquakes occur.