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Taiwan helicopters pluck quake-stranded tourists to safety

By AFP - Apr 07,2024 - Last updated at Apr 07,2024

HUALIEN, Taiwan — Taiwan rescue helicopters flew sorties on Saturday to pluck tourists to safety after a massive earthquake cut off roads and blocked tunnels, leaving hundreds stranded for days in the mountains.

At least 10 people were killed and more than 1,100 injured by the magnitude 7.4 quake that struck the island on Wednesday, with strict building codes and widespread disaster readiness credited with averting an even bigger catastrophe.

The quake caused massive landslides that blocked tunnels and long stretches of winding road that cut across the island from east to west, and also a coastal highway from north to south carved out of steep cliffs.

Hualien, the epicentre around 100 kilometres south of the capital Taipei, has been roiled by over 300 aftershocks, including one of magnitude 5.2 on Saturday morning.

But helicopters from the National Airborne Service Corps were flying into cut-off areas near the scenic Taroko National Park to pluck stranded visitors to safety.

An AFP staffer saw one flight ferry 12 people to safety, and a second with 16.

“Priority was given to the elderly, the weak, women, children, and people with chronic diseases,” said Taiwan news website ET Today.

“Although everyone was tired after coming down the mountain, they all still showed smiles.”

One airlift brought people from the luxury Silks Place hotel, where more than 400 tourists and staff had been stranded.

“The subsequent aftershocks were very large and serious,” a pastor identified only as Zhou told local media.

“I felt very nervous when I was sleeping, but with God’s blessing I was not afraid.”

Rescuers also airdropped boxes of food and supplies to a group of students, teachers and residents at an inaccessible elementary school.

Elsewhere, engineers were working around the clock to clear massive boulders from roads and tunnel entrances.

“Rescuers are not giving up,” said Taiwan’s vice president-elect Hsiao Bi-khim on Friday, calling them the “true heroes of a resilient Taiwan”.

Wednesday’s quake was the most serious in Taiwan since one of a magnitude of 7.6 hit the island in 1999.

The death toll then was far higher — with 2,400 people killed in the deadliest natural disaster in the island’s history.

Stricter regulations — including enhanced seismic requirements in its building codes — and widespread public disaster awareness appeared to have staved off a more serious catastrophe this time around.

A preliminary report by the National Centre for Research on Earthquake Engineering released Friday said 84 buildings had been “severely damaged” by the quake — most in Hualien county.

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