‘People were screaming’: Hualien residents in shock after Taiwan earthquake

In the first moments after the huge quake hit, Lanni Hsu grabbed her dog and her family, and fled. Running down five flights of stairs, she headed outdoors to seek safety from falling objects.

Hsu lives in Hualien, a busy tourist city on Taiwan’s east coast, where the 7.2-magnitude quake struck on Wednesday morning. The death toll stood at seven, with 700 injured and hundreds trapped under rubble.

Three people among a group of seven on an early-morning hike through the hills that surround the city were crushed to death by boulders loosened by the earthquake, officials said. Separately, a truck driver died when his vehicle was hit by a landslide as it approached a tunnel in the area.

Hualien’s people are no stranger to deadly earthquakes. Even so, this was the most frightened Hsu had felt, she said.

While her panic-stricken neighbours wondered what to do next, they learned that the basement of their building was starting to flood. Fearing the building could collapse, they decided to leave.

As Hsu and her family drove in search of an open space for refuge, the city’s streets became clogged with traffic and emergency vehicles. She could hear the earth rumble as the aftershocks hit.

Wednesday’s earthquake, which hit south-east of Hualien, is the strongest in Taiwan in almost 25 years, and for intensity almost matches the “921” earthquake, named after the date it took place on 21 September 1999, which left more than 2,400 people dead.

Hualien’s people have faced many serious earthquakes in recent years. In September 2022, a 6.9-magnitude quake with its epicentre near the city toppled buildings and derailed a train, killing one person and cutting off power for thousands of residents.

Yashwanth Kuthati said he had just dropped his children at school and was driving away on his moped through Hualien’s Wednesday morning rush-hour traffic when the quake hit. First, he felt as if the air had been let out of his moped’s tyres. Then, within seconds, there was chaos as drivers around him slammed the brakes, or fell off their bikes amid the tremors. Even after reaching safety, he still felt distressed.

“We can see people screaming and the tremors have kept coming every few minutes, for many hours,” he said, adding it was the biggest earthquake he had witnessed in 12 years living in Taiwan. “I don’t think I can sleep inside the house tonight,” he added. “I feel very scared.”

A collapsed building in Hualien. Photograph: CNA/AFP/Getty Images

Lai Hung-shu, a hostel owner in Hualien county, said she was used to earthquakes, but this one was different.

When the earthquake first started, we weren’t really exceptionally nervous, we get earthquakes all the time, but the thing that was different about this earthquake was the shaking felt much more violent and went on far longer than they typically do.”

Her hostel is in the mountains, and when the quake began she could hear the sound of rockfall coming down the mountain. Aftershocks continued all day, she said. She worried about the long-term effect on the tourist industry.

“The primary reason that we have visitors to our hostel is to see the beauty of Taroko national park, we won’t know how long it will take for repairs to be made or for guests to think about returning here.

“The road connecting Hualien with the north has been completely destroyed … this is the most serious damage to infrastructure we have ever seen.”

Taiwan map

Buildings collapsed in Hualien, and one residential block was left listing at a 45-degree angle, as rescue workers used a cherry picker to free residents from the upper storeys.

In central Taipei, light damage was visible on some buildings on Wednesday morning, including at Liberty Square, one of the city’s most prominent tourist landmarks.

Outside the Howard Plaza hotel, passersby gazed up at the damage to the hotel’s exterior, where the earthquake had cracked its brickwork and dislodged some lettering on the hotel’s sign.

“I’ve never felt this kind of earthquake in LA, even though we have earthquakes pretty often,” said Mike Hung Hsu, a hotel guest visiting from the US who was woken by the temblor. “I used to live in Taiwan; in my memory we never had an earthquake like this one.”

He said his family had cancelled a planned sightseeing trip to Yilan county, near Hualien on the island’s east coast, as there was no way to travel by public transport.

Aftershocks from the Hualien quake continued for hours after the initial temblor, and tremors were reportedly felt as far away as Hong Kong, Fujian and Shanghai.

Kuthati, who rents scooters to tourists in Hualien and operates a guest hostel with his wife, expects a big impact on his income from lost tourist business, with many of the main roads into the city blocked and rail lines out of service. Taiwan is about to observe a four-day weekend for the Tomb Sweeping festival, when families traditionally pay their respects to their ancestors or travel to the island’s many nature spots.

Hualien usually draws large numbers of backpackers, hikers and cyclists seeking the stunning natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, including the nearby Taroko national park. But with landslides in the vicinity, many will probably stay home for the next few days.

The Guardian