Ben Hills

Tokyo, Tuesday: As fires raged out of control through Kobe and after-shocks shook the rubble, the death toll from Japan’s most devastating earthquake in nearly half a century climbed towards 2,000.

Police had recovered 1,456 bodies, crushed or burnt to death in the ruins. Hope was fading for another 1,048 people reported missing – police said most of them were “crushed beneath the ruins” of wooden houses and concrete tower blocks in the port city of Kobe on the Inland Sea. They included 20 patients trapped in the debris of a collapsed Kobe hospital.

Another 4,439 people were confirmed injured. Hospitals were jammed with the burnt and wounded, lying on the floors of corridors, with desperate doctors running out of medicine, bandages and pain-killers to treat them.

An enormous fire covering a square kilometre of the Nagata district of Kobe was still burning out of control late tonight, engulfing streets of wooden houses, shops and concrete office blocks. People were still fleeing from their homes.

Forty-eight thousand people were homeless. They huddled on the floors of schools, public halls, parks and gymnasiums throughout the city.

The Government flew in 20,000 blankets and 20,000 emergency meals late in the evening.

The exodus from the city continued, with the sky lit up by the lurid glare of dozens of fires, as earthquake experts warned that there might be more shocks to come.

Traffic jams up to 20 kilometres long clogged the mangled roads.

Kobe had 606 after-shocks in the 16 hours after the initial quake, 54 of them serious enough to be felt.

Dr Kiyo Mogi, head of the Government’s earthquake prediction committee, warned residents that faults in the Kobe region had entered an “active phase”.

He said further damaging quakes, with an intensity up to six on the Richter scale, might be expected within the next seven to 10 days. His committee had failed to predict today’s quake.

Eight power plants remained shut down because of damage last night, and one million homes were still without electricity. Loudspeaker trucks toured the city broadcasting directions to refuges and the whereabouts of public water supplies.

The shinkansen bullet train network suffered the severest damage since it opened in 1964 to celebrate the Tokyo Olympics. Officials said it would take at least a year to rebuild the damaged tracks.

Tonight, driven out by the fires and the after-shocks in Kobe, thousands of residents were stripping food and bottled water from shops and fleeing the city or taking refuge in public parks.

Early estimates put the damage to thousands of houses, offices and public utilities at more than $A100 billion – the heaviest toll in Japan since 1948 when a quake flattened the city of Fukui, killing 4,000 people.

The Prime Minister, Mr Tomiichi Murayama, said he would visit the disaster scene “as soon as possible”.

“I pray that the souls of the deceased may rest in peace,” said a sombre Mr Murayama. “The Government will do its utmost.” Hospitals were choked and emergency services overwhelmed as fire-engines, ambulances and water-tankers battled down rubble-strewn streets to rescue the injured and put out raging fires fuelled by ruptured gas mains and fuel tanks.

More than 3,000 houses were wrecked or burnt, and major buildings – including the eightstorey city hall – seriously damaged. Kobe’s main street was closed off as demolition crews moved in on several high-rise buildings that were tilting alarmingly.

Bodies were laid out in temporary morgues – 28 in the city gymnasium, and another 26 in the historic Hosenji temple at one stage. Weeping relatives queued to claim their dead.

The quake hit in the freezing black pre-dawn at 5.46 am (7.46 am Sydney time) and in 30 seconds of violent vertical jolting damaged thousands of buildings and killed and injured people over a 100-kilometre radius.

Ten hours later Kobe looked like Grozny, with at least a dozen pillars of fire and smoke towering into the sky.

“I can hardly see because of the smoke,” said a television reporter from a helicopter camera platform. “I have never been in a war, but this is what I think it would be like.” Late today more than 70 fires were still burning out of control in the Kobe area as the authorities broadcast warnings for people to flee the area.

NHK, the national broadcaster, was airing warnings that people should not listen to rumours about more quakes.

“Only listen to official information from NHK or the Government,” announcers said.

Firemen, reinforced by hundreds of firefighters who rushed to the scene from Tokyo, stood by helplessly after ruptured mains cut off the water, watching street after street of traditional Japanese tile-roofed wooden houses explode like fireworks.

Elderly women, wrapped in pink blankets and wrapping hachimaki headbands around their hair – a Japanese gesture like rolling up your sleeves – sat stunned on footpaths and park benches throughout the city as the flames boiled skywards.

The quake registered 7.2 on the Richter scale, and in Kobe six of the maximum seven point on the Japanese scale. Seismologists said its epicentre was 20 kilometres deep in the earth’s crust under the Inland Sea island of Awaji.

The quake rocked neighbouring Osaka, Japan’s third largest city, as well as the ancient imperial capitals of Kyoto and Nara, and the cities of Wakayama and Shiga.

Kobe, Japan’s sixth largest city, has a population of 1.5 million and is an key port and manufacturing centre.

As night fell, the historic city looked like a towering inferno. Transport was paralysed, with roads and rail bridges wrecked, and thousands of troops had been called in to back up local emergency services.

As well as the horrific human toll, the quake has struck at the heartland of Japan’s economy. The surrounding Kanto region – after Tokyo, Japan’s most important industrial centre – has a population of 20 million.

The Osaka stock exchange cancelled all securities and commodity trading for the day, after the quake scrambled computer systems.

Hundreds of factories and offices were disabled by quake-damage, fire, or the collapse of water, power and telephone services.

The Tokyo stock exchange dropped more than 100 points and the yen fell. Dealers said that this was in response to the quake, as well as other disappointing economic indicators.

Glass and construction companies went up on the Tokyo exchange, and non-life insurance companies lost.

More than a million homes were without power, gas was cut off to 500,000 homes and water supplies were also cut to large areas of the city. There were long lines at public telephones waiting for connections – jammed lines cut Kobe off from the world all day.

Bank auto-tellers were drained of cash by panicking residents.

The worst single toll was at the town of Takarazuka, halfway between Kobe and Osaka, where a hospital collapsed, killing about 50 patients and staff.

Rescuers were trying to burrow into the wreckage of a second hospital in Kobe, and more than 100 troops were working under floodlights to rescue 38 of the 250 patients and staff still trapped in the rubble of a third hospital, the West Citizens’ Hospital, more than 12 hours after the quake.

People trapped in a five-storey office building which fell onto its side were seen waving frantically for help six hours after the quake hit. Sheets were draped down the walls of a wrecked hotel where guests had apparently climbed to freedom.

The most serious immediate concern was the safety of two nuclear power plants in the area affected by the quake. Kansai Electric Power – the world’s largest electricity utility – shut down eight conventional generators, including one nuclear power plant, to check for damage.

The industries affected are a Who’s Who of Japan’s world-beating companies. Four petrochemical plants were shut down because of damage, and two steelworks – one operated by Kobe Steel and one by Sumitomo Metal Industries – were also shut down.

The elevated Hanshin expressway, the main road artery between Kobe and Osaka which carries hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks a day, had its back broken in at least three places when giant concrete pylons crumbled, sending sections up to half a kilometre long crashing to earth.

A survivor who had been driving along the freeway said: “My car was thrown up in the air for about a metre, and then crashed. The next thing I knew, there was fire everywhere and people from a service station were dragging me from the car.” Twenty cars plunged to earth with it, and at least three motorists were among the dead. On one section of the highway, a dozen heavy trucks lay on their sides with their loads spilled onto the verge.

Kobe’s port, which is built on reclaimed land, sustained major structural damage, halting ferry-services and flights were disrupted at Osaka’s $A2 billion Kansai International airport, opened just last year on a man-made island in the Inland Sea.

Rural Awajishima island, the epicentre of the quake, looked as if it had been bombed, with more than 100 houses reduced to piles of matchwood.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito cancelled a planned trip to a holiday villa in Kanagawa prefecture, and sent a message of “deep regret” to the survivors of the quake.

President Clinton, who was in Los Angeles to mark the anniversary of the Northridge earthquake a year ago, telephoned Mr Murayama to offer help from the experts who helped rebuild after the San Francisco and Los Angeles quakes.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries among the thousands of foreign residents, tourists and businessmen in the area.

The Australian Embassy in Tokyo said it had no information on any Australians killed or injured in the quake. A number of Australian companies, including Ansett, Qantas and the Australian Tourism Commission have staff and offices in Kobe or Osaka, and thousands of Australian tourists visit Kyoto and Nara.

Mr Gregson Edwards, the embassy’s information counsellor, said a staff-member had had to drive around on a motor-scooter to check the safety of the five consular staff who live in Kobe and work in Osaka because the phone-lines were down. All were safe.

Earthquake struck 5.46 local time, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale.

Dead: 1,456 Missing: 1,048 Injured: 4,439

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Wednesday 18 January 1995
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section:
Page: 1
Word count: 1505
Diagram: Japan’s big shock Seismographic reading Two Maps: Japan, Epicentre