Kumamoto (Japan) (AFP) – A powerful earthquake hit southern Japan early Saturday, sending panicked residents from their homes and damaging buildings in a region where nerves were already frayed after a series of powerful tremors over the past two days.
The earthquake hit after another strong one on the southwestern island of Kyushu Thursday, killing nine people, injuring hundreds and causing widespread damage in the area where rescuers were still searching for survivors feared trapped under rubble.
One more person was killed in a fire after Saturday’s quake, which sparked a fresh wave of destruction and injuries, as more buildings toppled and a bridge reportedly collapsed in the hard-hit city of Kumamoto.
Public broadcaster NHK showed footage of rescuers in the nearby town of Mashiki carrying a victim on a stretcher from a collapsed house to an ambulance while they massaged the person’s chest.
Meanwhile, a large fire that broke out at an apartment complex in Yatsushiro city killed one person, city official Kiichiro Terada said.
“We are also checking if any more people failed to escape,” he said, adding that the fire was under control.
Authorities were considering evacuating patients from a hospital in hard-hit Kumamoto city over fears it could collapse after a wave of aftershocks shook the area, NHK said, while scores were reported trapped in a nursing home in Mashiki.
The hospital was slanted and soldiers were sent to the scene to assess the situation, according to reports.
Authorities warned residents of landslides and said houses weakened by the quake could fall down, while footage showed a partially collapsed apartment building in Kumamoto.
Hisako Ogata, 61, evacuated to a nearby park with her daughter, where some 50 other people sat on blue plastic sheets.
“We left my house as we could not stay due to continuous jolts,” Ogata told AFP.
“It was so scary,” she added. “Thank God we are still alive.”
An AFP journalist in Kumamoto said he was jolted awake by powerful shaking, which sent the television set in his hotel room crashing to the floor. Staff urged guests to evacuate.
The quake, measured at magnitude 7.0 by the US Geological Survey, struck at 1:25 am (1625 GMT Friday) at a depth of 10 kilometres (6.2 miles).
The Japan Meteorological Agency, which put the magnitude at a revised 7.3, initially issued a tsunami warning for the western coast of Kyushu but later lifted it.
Thursday night’s quake killed nine people and injured nearly 900. That one was measured at magnitude 6.2 by USGS, and 6.5 by the Japanese agency.
– ‘Really strong’ –
There were several reports of people being trapped under debris at various locations, and NHK showed images of rescue workers removing rubble from atop a collapsed house.
Shotaro Sakamoto, a Kumamoto prefectural official, said Saturday’s quake felt comparable to Thursday’s.
“It was really strong… many people on the street appeared panicked,” Sakamoto told AFP.
The latest quake came as officials had said they did not expect the death toll from the first one to rise, raising hopes the worst could be over.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was due to visit Kyushu later Saturday to inspect damage and rescue efforts, but Jiji Press reported his trip was cancelled.
“We are trying our best to assess the damage situation as it could spread,” he told reporters early Saturday.
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.
A nuclear plant on Kyushu was unaffected by Saturday’s quake, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, told reporters.