Taiwan hit by strongest earthquake since 1999

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Four people have been killed in Taiwan after the island’s strongest earthquake in almost 25 years damaged buildings, halted rail traffic and forced the evacuation of semiconductor manufacturing plants.

The quake — which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, according to Taiwan’s earthquake monitoring agency, and 7.4 according to the US Geological Survey — struck at 7.58am on Wednesday off the east coast, 25km south of Hualien, a city of about 100,000 people.

Taiwan’s National Fire Agency said four people had died and 57 others were injured. In Hualien, one of two buildings that tilted due to the quake was fully evacuated without casualties. In another multistorey building, rescue workers were still confirming how many people remained trapped in apartments, the local government said.

New Taipei City, the municipality surrounding the capital, suspended school and work for the day.

Taiwan is one of the world’s most important centres of semiconductor production. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest contract chipmaker, evacuated personnel from some of its plants.

“TSMC’s safety systems are operating normally,” the company said in a statement. “We are currently confirming the details of the impact.” The company added that it had suspended work at construction sites for the day pending further inspections.

The high-precision machinery used for fabricating semiconductors is highly vulnerable to unplanned interruptions. The administration of Hsinchu Science Park, where TSMC has many plants, said the company and Powerchip, another manufacturer, had conducted preventive shutdowns of some machinery, local media reported. TSMC did not respond to a request for comment.

Landslides on Taiwan’s mountainous Pacific coast cut off the only road connecting Hualien county, a mostly agricultural region home to some 330,000 people, with the north.

Many people started travelling there this week ahead of a long holiday weekend that starts on Thursday.

The quake temporarily knocked out power for more than 300,000 households, but supplies had been restored to most of the affected homes by 11.30am, according to the state-owned Taiwan Power Company.

Formosa Petrochemical said it had suspended port operations at Mailiao, one of the world’s largest refineries.

The impact of Wednesday’s quake appeared much smaller than that of the earthquake on September 21, 1999, which struck more densely populated areas at night and killed more than 2,000 people. That quake, the largest since 1935, also caused significant damage to chip production. 

A tsunami warning was issued after Wednesday’s quake for Japan’s southern island prefecture of Okinawa and later lifted.

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