/ 24 July 2008

Rescuers search for injured after strong quake in Japan

Rescue teams searched in dense fog and rain on Thursday for victims of a powerful earthquake in northern Japan that left more than 120 people injured, some of them seriously.

The 6,8-magnitude quake struck just after midnight on the mountainous northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, shattering windows and triggering landslides in a region still recovering from a tremor one month ago.

A total of 126 people were injured, according to the national disaster agency. Police said that 28 of them were seriously wounded, some having broken bones as the quake threw them to the ground.

Military helicopters scoured the region famed for its blueberry fields and hot-spring resorts to find anyone who might have been left stranded by landslides, but low visibility and light rain hampered the operations.

”I’ve never felt such a big earthquake before in my life,” said Kenji Sasaki, a disaster official in the town of Hirono, where the walls and ceilings of the municipal head office suffered cracks. ”I was asleep when I felt the jolt but for its entire duration I couldn’t move.”

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda also said he was startled in his bedroom by the quake, which was so powerful that it shook buildings in the capital, 500km to the south.

”As a nation we will promptly take appropriate measures,” Fukuda said. ”However, it appears that the area is now foggy so it’s difficult to assess the situation by helicopters. We would like to clarify the situation as quickly as possible.”

Chief government spokesperson Nobutaka Machimura said there were no reports of deaths.

”In any case, our priority is to make every possible effort to grasp the situation concerning damages,” he told a news conference.

In the city of Hachinohe, the earthquake toppled gravestones at a cemetery, sending residents scurrying to repair damage out of respect to their ancestors.

”Many bottles of Japanese sake, wine and juice fell off the shelves and broke, making a pool on the floor,” said Fumitaka Kizu (60), who manages a liquor store in Hachinohe. ”We lost about 80 bottles.”

In the village of Tanohata, a 73-year-old woman was in intensive care after suffering a brain haemorrhage due to the shock of the earthquake, local official Kiwao Nakashima said.

Authorities sealed off roads to traffic at three points in fear of further landslides, he said.

The earthquake struck 108km under the surface, a relatively deep level that apparently limited damages, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

The injured included a worker at a Toyota group car factory who was knocked on the head by an auto frame and needed stitches, a company spokesperson said.

Factories of Fujitsu, NEC and Toshiba that produce semiconductors and other electronic parts all temporarily halted operations after minor damage, the companies said.

An aftershock of magnitude 5,0 hit later in the morning. But in a country used to earthquakes, authorities were quickly able to restore services and buildings held firm.

”We had a water pipe break and the electricity was out for a while after the quake, but the problems are all fixed now,” said a police officer in the town of Iwaizumi, where big rocks tumbled down a cliff.

Japan, which lies at the crossing of four tectonic plates, experiences 20% of the world’s powerful earthquakes. Just one month ago, a 7,2-magnitude quake hit the same area, leaving 23 people dead or missing. — Sapa-AFP