Japan quake: Race against time as death toll rises to 48

A car passes a collapsed wooden house in Shika Town, Ishikawa prefecture, a day after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture in the afternoon. Picture: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

A car passes a collapsed wooden house in Shika Town, Ishikawa prefecture, a day after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture in the afternoon. Picture: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

Published Jan 2, 2024


Japanese rescuers battled against the clock and powerful aftershocks Tuesday to find survivors of a major earthquake that struck on New Year's Day, killing at least 48 people and causing widespread destruction.

The 7.5-magnitude quake, which hit Ishikawa prefecture on the main island of Honshu, triggered tsunami waves more than a metre high, toppled buildings, caused a major fire and tore apart roads.

As daylight broke, the scale of the destruction on the Noto Peninsula emerged with buildings still on fire, houses flattened, fishing boats sunk or washed ashore and highways hit by landslides.

"It was such a powerful jolt," Tsugumasa Mihara, 73, told AFP as he queued with hundreds of others for water in the shellshocked town of Shika.

"What a terrible way to start the year," he said.

Local authorities put the death toll at 48, half of them in Wajima, but the number was expected to rise.

"Very extensive damage has been confirmed, including numerous casualties, building collapses and fires," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said after a disaster response meeting.

"We have to race against time to search for and rescue victims of the disaster."

Aerial news footage showed the terrifying scale of a fire that ripped through Wajima, where a seven-storey commercial also building collapsed.

Almost 33,000 households were without power in the region, which saw temperatures touch freezing overnight, the local energy provider said. Many cities were without running water.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) said the quake had a magnitude of 7.5. Japan's meteorological agency measured it at 7.6 and said it was one of more than 150 to shake the region through Tuesday morning.

Several strong jolts were felt early Tuesday, including one measuring 5.6 that prompted national broadcaster NHK to switch to a special programme.

"Please take deep breaths," the presenter said, reminding viewers to check for fires in their kitchens.

Tsunami warning lifted

On Monday, waves at least 1.2 metres (four feet) high hit Wajima and a series of smaller tsunamis were reported elsewhere.

Warnings of much larger waves proved unfounded and on Tuesday, Japan lifted all tsunami warnings.

Images on social media showed cars, houses and bridges in Ishikawa wobbling violently as terrified people cowered in shops and train stations.

Houses collapsed and huge cracks appeared in roads while others were hit by landslides.

A team of firefighters crawled under a collapsed commercial building in Wajima looking for survivors, television footage showed.

"Hang in there! Hang in there," they shouted as they battled through piles of wooden beams with an electric saw.

The fire in Wajima engulfed dozens of structures, video footage showed, with people being evacuated in the dark, some with blankets and others carrying babies.

NHK reported that 25 houses had collapsed in the city, including 14 that may have had people trapped inside.

A duty officer at the Wajima Fire Department said authorities were still being overwhelmed Tuesday by rescue requests and reports of damage.

Ishikawa Governor Hiroshi Hase wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that roads have been cut in widespread areas by landslides or cracking, while in the port of Suzu "multiple" vessels had capsized.

A total of 62,000 people had been ordered to evacuate, according to the fire and disaster management agency.

About 1,000 were staying at a military base, the defence ministry said.

Bullet trains suspended

Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said 1,000 military personnel were preparing to go to the region, while 8,500 others were on standby. Around 20 military aircraft were dispatched to survey the damage.

Monday's quake shook apartments in the capital Tokyo about 300 kilometres away, where a public New Year greeting event that was to be attended by Emperor Naruhito and his family members was cancelled.

Several major highways were closed around the epicentre, Japan's road operator said, and bullet train services from Tokyo were also suspended.

Around 500 people were stranded at Noto's damaged airport, with access roads blocked and the runway riddled with cracks.

And some 1,000 people remained stuck in local express trains almost 24 hours after they were halted on Monday, NHK said.

Japan experiences hundreds of earthquakes every year and the vast majority cause no damage.

The number of earthquakes in the Noto Peninsula region has been steadily increasing since 2018, a Japanese government report said last year.

Japan is haunted by a massive 9.0-magnitude undersea quake off northeastern Japan in 2011 which triggered a tsunami that left around 18,500 people dead or missing.

It also swamped the Fukushima atomic plant, causing one of the world's worst nuclear disasters.

Japan's nuclear authority said there were no abnormalities reported at the Shika atomic power plant in Ishikawa or at other plants after Monday's quake.

Agence France-Presse