Two powerful earthquakes a day apart shook southwestern Japan, killing at least 29 people and injuring 1,500, as thousands of army troops and other rescuers rushed Saturday to save scores of trapped residents before the weather turns bad.
The exact number of casualties remained unclear. Rainfall was forecast to start pounding the area soon, threatening to further complicate the relief operation and set off more mudslides in isolated rural towns, where people were waiting to be rescued in collapsed homes.
Kumamoto Prefectural official Tomoyuki Tanaka said the death toll was climbing, with the latest standing at 19 from Saturday’s magnitude-7.3 quake that shook the Kumamoto region on the southwestern island of Kyushu at 1:25 a.m. On Thursday night, Kyushu was hit by a magnitude-6.5 quake that left 10 dead.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that 1,500 people have been injured, 80 of them seriously. Nearly 70,000 have left their homes, he said.
Police received reports of 97 cases of people trapped or buried under collapsed buildings, while 10 people were caught in landslides in three municipalities in the prefecture, Kyodo News reported.
TV footage showed of a collapsed student dormitory of Tokai University, which was originally two floors, but now looked like a single story building. A witness said he heard a cry for help from the rubble. Two students were reported to have died.
In Mashiki, where people have been trapped beneath the rubble for hours, an unconscious elderly woman was dragged out from the debris of her home. Her son-in-law Tatsuhiko Sakata said 93-year-old Yumiko Yamauchi had refused to move to shelter with him after the first quake Thursday.
The area has been rocked by aftershocks, including the strongest with a magnitude of 5.4 Saturday morning. The Japan Meteorological Agency said that Saturday’s may be the main quake, with the earlier one a precursor. The quakes’ epicenters have been relatively shallow — about 10 kilometers (6 miles) — and close to the surface, resulting in more severe shaking and damage. NHK TV said as many as eight quakes were being felt an hour in the area.
Japanese media reported that nearly 200,000 homes were without electricity. Drinking water systems had also failed in the area. TV footage showed people huddled in blankets, quietly, shoulder to shoulder, on floors of evacuation centers. An estimated 410,000 households are in need of water.
The tremors appear to have caused extensive damage, overturning cars, splitting roads and triggering a landslide as shown by TV Asahi footage. Television images showed flattened houses, shards of broken glass and debris piled onto the streets and people huddled outside. Nearly 92,000 people have evacuated, according to the prefecture's disaster management office.
"We don't know what is happening in the whole disaster area because it is a remote mountain area and some big bridges were down and many landslides were found so we were working around the clock and are making assessments. But so far the road access is not easy to the remote areas."
The shallow depth of the latest quake and the dense population of where it struck could prove to be devastating, according to experts.