Emergency responders were focusing on a 12-storey apartment block and a nearby hotel, both of which were leaning dangerously with their lower floors pancaked after the 6.4-magnitude quake hit the popular tourist city late yesterday (Feb 6).
There were grave concerns for the badly leaning Yun Tsui residential building, which also housed a restaurant, shops and a hostel.
The national fire agency said 88 people were unaccounted for as of 2pm (1pm Thai time) but it was not immediately clear how many of those were trapped inside buildings.
Dozens of residents – and a string of pets – were rescued with ropes and ladders overnight. But fire department staff at the site said that at least four bodies had been pulled out of the building in the day.
Officials temporarily suspended rescue efforts late afternoon over fears the building might slip further as engineers raced to push large concrete clocks and steel bars against the leaning side.
One resident who lives nearby told of how he watched the tower block partially collapse.
“I saw the first floor sink into the ground. Then it sank and tilted further and the fourth floor became the first floor,” said Lu Chih-son, 35, who saw 20 people rescued from the building.
“My family were unhurt but a neighbour was injured in their head and is bleeding. We dare not go back home now. There are many aftershocks and we are worried the house is damaged,” he said.
Chen Chih-wei, 80, said he was sleeping in his apartment on the top floor of the building when the quake struck.
“My bed turned completely vertical. I was sleeping and suddenly I was standing,” he said.
Chen said he managed to crawl his way to a balcony to wait for rescue, adding that the quake was the strongest he had felt in more than five decades of living in Hualien.
At the Marshal Hotel, which was also leaning and badly damaged, at least two people were killed when the lower floors collapsed. But most residents got out and authorities said they believed there were no more people trapped inside.
President Tsai Ing-wen visited the apartment block this morning.
“Now is the prime time for our rescue efforts, our first priority is to save people,” she said in a Facebook post.
Hualien is one of Taiwan’s most popular tourist hubs as it lies on the picturesque east coast rail line and near the popular Taroko Gorge.
The government said 17 foreigners sought medical treatment for minor injuries.
Local resident Blue Hsu said some of those carried out of the hotel were foreigners.
“The lower floors sunk into the ground and I saw panicked tourists being rescued from the hotel,” eyewitness Blue Hsu said.
Officials also said 214 people had been injured in the quake, with 117 rescued from damaged buildings so far. Some 830 people were in shelters while 1,900 houses were without power.
The quake hit just before midnight (10:50pm Thai time) around 21 kilometres northeast of Hualien, according to the United States Geological Survey.
It followed almost 100 smaller tremors to have hit the area in the last three days and comes exactly two years since a quake of the same magnitude struck the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan, killing more than 100 people.
Most of the deaths from the February 2016 earthquake were from the 16-storey Wei-kuan apartment complex, which toppled on its side and buried many residents in the rubble.
It was the only high-rise in Tainan to crumble completely in that quake.
The safety of the building was called into question immediately after the disaster, when metal cans and foam were found to have been used as fillers in the concrete and residents said there had been cracks in the structure.
Five people were found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment over the disaster, including the developer and two architects, with prosecutors saying they “cut corners” that affected the building’s structural integrity.
Taiwan lies near the junction of two tectonic plates and is regularly hit by earthquakes.
The island’s worst tremor in recent decades was a 7.6-magnitude quake in September 1999 that killed around 2,400 people.