, TAIPEI, Mar 4 – A powerful quake jolted southern Taiwan on Thursday, sending panicked residents fleeing from shaking buildings, toppling farm houses and derailing a carriage on a high-speed train.
Initial reports said at least 12 people had been injured in the 6.4-magnitude quake which the US Geological Survey said struck about 70 kilometres (about 40 miles) from the island\’s second-largest city Kaohsiung.
It was felt as far north as the capital Taipei, several hundred kilometres away.
The epicentre was in a sparsely inhabited mountainous area in Jiahsian township in Kaohsiung county, an area still recovering from a massive typhoon that triggered floods and mudslides in August, killing about 700 people.
"It felt like the buildings were going to collapse," said Chen Pei-chi, a teacher in Shiaolin Elementary School in a village close to the epicentre.
"I tried to get out, but my legs failed me because I was so frightened. Many children were screaming while they were running out of the classrooms."
It was the biggest earthquake to hit the Kaohsiung area in recent years, the weather bureau reported, and followed massive killer quakes in Chile on Saturday and Haiti in January.
The bureau said the initial quake at 8:18 am (0018 GMT) was followed up by at least 15 aftershocks.
Local television showed footage of collapsed farm houses in Kaohsiung county as well as cracked walls and falling ceiling panels in buildings in the nearby Chiayi area.
The quake derailed a carriage in a train on the high-speed rail connecting the north and the south of the island, leaving passengers stranded for two hours, media reports said, but there were no casualties.
A fire broke in a textile factory in Tainan county, north of the epicentre, with one worker slightly hurt during the evacuation, Central News Agency said. Television footage showed thick black smoke billowing from the building.
Most of the 12 people injured were hit by falling objects, but none was in a serious condition, the fire service said.
"The building was shaking violently and I was really scared. It felt just like a typhoon lashing out," said Chang Shu-yuan, a resident of Kaohsiung city, which has a population of about 1.5 million.
No tsunami warning was issued from the quake, which the USGS said struck at a depth of 35 kilometres (22 miles).
In the city of Nantou, water and power lines were cut, and a group of about 10 people were trapped in an elevator, the television said.
President Ma Ying-jeou was scheduled to inspect relief measures in Tainan later Thursday, while the defence ministry said it has dispatched at least 10 helicopters to survey quake-hit areas to assess the extent of the damage.
The quake also caused buildings to shake in Southern Taiwan Science Park, one of the nerve centres of the island\’s high-tech export machine.
"Manufacturing at the companies in the park was interrupted as workers were evacuated to safety," said park spokesman Wu Men-feng.
Taiwan is regularly hit by earthquakes as the island lies near the junction of two tectonic plates.
In September 1999, a 7.6-magnitude quake killed around 2,400 people in the deadliest natural disaster in the island\’s history.
Most modern buildings in Taiwan are built to withstand earthquakes, but the island\’s sophisticated infrastructure is nevertheless vulnerable to the forces of nature.
An earthquake off Taiwan in December 2006 hit an undersea cable, causing days of disruption to Internet and telephone connections in large parts of East Asia.
In August last year, Typhoon Morakot dumped more than three metres (120 inches) of rain on the south, triggering floods and mudslides which swamped houses and buildings, ripped up roads and smashed bridges.
Taiwan is still rebuilding and relocating villages devastated by the typhoon, the deadliest to hit the island in half a century.
Most of the roughly 700 people killed or still listed as missing in the typhoon were from Kaohsiung county.