The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 63.0°F | Partly Cloudy

Japan Quake Toll Hits 1,800; Hundreds More Still Missing

By Sam Jameson
Los Angeles Times

The western port city of Kobe, Japan, remained virtually paralyzed today in the wake of the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 1,800 people, sent as many as 150,000 seeking refuge and laid waste assurances that modern construction technology protects city dwellers in Japan from major seismic damage.

In what Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama called Japan's most devastating tremor since the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, police today put the death toll at 1,812, with 996 missing and 6,367 injured. Most of the dead perished in their homes as the quake struck shortly before dawn Tuesday.

Railway, water, gas, telephone and electric services were ruptured. Damaged tollways also were closed, and roads leading into the disaster area were clogged with traffic or closed off by police. More than 120,000 of the city's 1.5 million people sought shelter overnight in public buildings and unheated school gymnasiums as the temperature dropped below freezing overnight.

Early today, authorities discovered a leak in a 20,000-ton liquid petroleum gas storage tank in Hyogo and urged 70,000 residents in two districts of the city to leave their homes.

And 34,000 residents of two man-made islands were left isolated by damage to bridges linking them to the main section of Kobe.

No earthquake had struck any major Japanese urban center since 1948, when a 7.3-magnitude quake in the prefecture of Fukui killed 3,895 people.

Estimates of material damage Tuesday were in the tens of billions of dollars. In a news conference televised nationwide, Murayama pledged the government's full efforts to restore normality to Kobe and its environs.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Kozo Igarashi said Murayama will visit the devastated area Thursday. He also said the government would employ rescue and recovery techniques that its Construction Ministry experts learned in Los Angeles while studying the city's earthquake that occurred one year ago to the day.

Army troops were dispatched to help rescue nearly 1,000 people believed to be trapped in the debris of collapsed buildings, and firefighters were brought in from 75 cities as far away as Tokyo, 270 miles northeast of Kobe. The soldiers also were distributing fresh water and instant noodles.

American help was on its way, President Clinton announced Tuesday in Los Angeles, which he visited to mark the anniversary of the 6.7-magnitude quake. "I have ordered a high-level team that includes representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Transportation to leave for Japan shortly to see if anything we learned here can be helpful to them there."

More than 9,000 homes and buildings were severely damaged or destroyed. Fires that continued to burn into the morning of the second day leveled entire blocks of the city, as firefighters were forced to pump water from rivers. In addition to the storage tank trouble, gas leaks were reported at 1,400 locations. Landslides occurred in rural mountainous areas nearby.

Although the biggest area of fire devastation - a swath of about six city blocks - contained wooden homes built after the end of World War II a half-century ago, fires also erupted in concrete buildings.

Elevated expressways and railways, including the 130-mph Tokyo-Fukuoka Bullet train, were closed down by cave-ins and ruptures. Tuesday was the first time since the Bullet Line started operations in 1964 that the superspeed railway had been crippled. Trains from Tokyo were operating only as far as Kyoto, on one end. Service from Fukuoka on Kyushu Island was available only to Okayama on the other end.

The earthquake struck at 5:46 a.m. Tuesday, 14 minutes before the Bullet Line trains started runs that normally transport 360,000 passengers.

Twelve trains derailed on elevated sections of track, and at least one station collapsed, wiping out an access street beneath it. But there were no reports of subway damage, and nearby domestic and international airports both continued to operate.

The Transportation Ministry in Tokyo asked Japan's three major airlines to add flights from Tokyo to points beyond Osaka to plug partially the gap in the key national transportation network. Repairs to extend the operating portion of the line from Tokyo to Osaka were expected to take about a week, but the rest of the disruption could continue for at least two months, railways officials said.