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Taiwan's strongest earthquake in 25 years kills at least 9

Hundreds of others were injured in the 7.4-magnitude tremor off the island’s east coast, which was felt across the region and prompted tsunami warnings that were later lifted.
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HONG KONG — Taiwan was shaken Wednesday by its most powerful earthquake in 25 years, a major trembler that killed at least nine people, injured a thousand more, collapsed hundreds of buildings, and triggered tsunami warnings across the region.

Some 143 people, many of them tourists in badly-damaged hotels, were feared trapped in the ruins, the Taiwan National Fire Agency reported.

Rescue efforts were underway to free 71 workers trapped in two rock quarries in the hardest-hit Hualien region, the NFA said. There were also reports that multiple people were trapped in eight collapsed tunnels in and around Hualien City, about 70 miles southeast of the Taiwanese capital Taipei.

The 7.4 magnitude quake happened around 8 a.m. local time (8 p.m. Tuesday ET) at a depth of about 21 miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicenter was about 11 miles south-southwest of Hualien City, on the island’s Pacific coast.

It was the strongest earthquake to hit Taiwan since 1999, when a 7.6 magnitude tremor killed about 2,400 people, said Wu Chien-fu, director of Taiwan’s Seismological Center.

While 1,011 people have so far been reported injured, Taiwanese fire officials warned that that figure — along with the death toll — could rise in the coming days.

The authorities have still not been able to reach at least 50 people who were riding in mini-buses through Taroko National Park when the quake struck and knocked out local phone networks.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said a disaster response center had been set up and that the National Army would provide support to local governments. She also warned her constituents to be wary of aftershocks.

“I would like to remind everyone not to take the elevator for the time being, and to pay more attention to safety,” the president said.

Annie Lima, an American who has lived in Taiwan for almost 17 years, was visiting friends in Hualien on Tuesday when the building they were in began to tremble. She said there continued to be aftershocks in the afternoon, hours after the initial quake.

“It was pretty scary,” she told NBC News. “In all the years that I’ve lived here and in Southern California before that I’ve felt a lot of earthquakes, but this was by far the strongest and the most frightening.” 

A damaged building in Hualien City, Taiwan, after an earthquake
A damaged building in Hualien City, Taiwan, after a 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck Wednesday.TVBS via AP

When the shaking started, Lima said she and her husband ran for the nearest doorway.

“Even there in a doorway on the second floor, we could barely keep our balance, you know, holding both sides of the doorway,” she said. “And all around us things were falling off the walls and off shelves, smashing and crashing everywhere.”

Videos on social media showed two buildings in Hualien, one nine stories tall and the other five stories tall, that appeared to be partially pancaked and twisted into odd angles.

Jason Delickta, an American living in the nearby community of Meilun, said his home sustained some damage but his restaurant in Hualien, the Salt Lick Smokehouse & Grill, was “quite a bit worse.”

“We lost most of our plates, because they’re all on top of the line, and so they all were shaking and fell off,” he said. “We lost a lot of liquor bottles, beer bottles, glasses, things like that.”

Delickta said he and other local business operators had been expecting an influx of visitors this weekend. It's the start of a traditional Chinese festival known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, when people honor their ancestors. But the rail service has been disrupted by the earthquake.

“The damage to our restaurant wasn’t so bad, but the economic damage for this town will be,” said Delickta, who was also in Hualien in 2018 when a 6.4-magnitude earthquake killed 17 people. "It’ll be more because of the loss of revenue."

Hualien City has a population of around 106,000. The county’s population is around 340,000.

The earthquake was also felt in all parts of Taiwan, the Central News Agency reported. Metro systems in Taipei, the capital, as well as the cities of Taichung and Kaohsiung, were suspended before mostly resuming, the agency said.

Worst Taiwan Quake in 25 Years Levels Buildings
A collapsed road in New Taipei City following the earthquake.An Rong Xu / Bloomberg via Getty Images

More than 87,000 households had their power knocked out by the quake and the subsequent series of aftershocks, the biggest of which measured 6.5, according to Taiwan’s Central Weather Administration.

A live camera on YouTube captured the moment at 7:58 a.m. local time when the earth began shaking at Liyu Lake near Hualien.

Taiwan is home to TSMC, one of the biggest companies in the island's crucial semiconductor manufacturing industry. A spokesperson said its safety systems were operating normally and that some fabrication plants had been evacuated as a preventive measure.

“All personnel are safe, and those evacuated are beginning to return to their workplaces,” the company said in a statement. “The company is currently confirming the details of the impact.”

Taiwan Earthquake Damage
A local resident inspects damage to a brick wall inside a home in Taipei.Central News Agency / AFP - Getty Images

Earlier Wednesday, officials in Japan issued a tsunami warning and an evacuation order for coastal areas of the southern prefecture of Okinawa, warning of waves up to 3 meters (about 10 feet) high. As of late morning, the biggest reported wave was 30 centimeters (about 12 inches) on the Japanese island of Yonaguni, which is close to Taiwan.

A tsunami warning and evacuation orders were also issued and later rescinded in parts of the Philippines.

Tremors were reported elsewhere in the region, including by social media users in Fujian, a province on China’s southeast coast that sits across from Taiwan. Videos posted online also showed chandeliers swaying in cities in other parts of China including Shanghai and Hangzhou.

In the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Observatory said it had received more than 100 reports of tremors, likening the vibration to the “passing of light trucks.”

A spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office in China, which claims the self-ruling island as its territory, extended “sincere condolences to the affected compatriots in Taiwan,” and said they would closely monitor the situation and were ready to provide disaster relief assistance.

Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong, Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing, and Corky Siemaszko reported from New York.