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7 killed as earthquake strikes Taiwan building

Rescuers mounted hydraulic ladders and a crane to scour the wreckage, plucking 221 survivors to safety.

Rescuers help a survivor out of a collapsed building following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck the area in Tainan City, Taiwan, 6 February 2016. Picture: EPA/RITCHIE B. TONGO.

TAINAN, TAIWAN - A powerful earthquake toppled a 17-story apartment building in southern Taiwan on Saturday, killing at least seven people, including a 10-day-old girl, and triggering frantic efforts to rescue about 35 people feared trapped inside.

The baby and three of the other dead were from an apartment complex where the floors of a tower block pancaked down onto to each other when the 6.4 magnitude tremor hit at around 4 am, at the start of a Lunar New Year holiday.

Rescuers mounted hydraulic ladders and a crane to scour the wreckage, plucking 221 survivors to safety so far, with dozens taken to hospital, a fire brigade official said.

Elsewhere in the city of 2 million people, several buildings tilted at alarming angles but a fire department official said rescue efforts were now focussed entirely on the apartment block, where a child's clothes fluttered from a first-floor laundry line and the smell of leaking gas hung in the air.

"I was watching TV and after a sudden burst of shaking, I heard a boom. I opened my metal door and saw the building opposite fall down," said a 71-year-old neighbour who gave his name as Chang.

A plumber, he said he fetched some tools and a ladder and prised some window bars open to rescue a woman crying for help.

"She asked me to go back and rescue her husband, child, but I was afraid of a gas explosion so I didn't go in. At the time there were more people calling for help, but my ladder wasn't long enough so there was no way to save them."

The quake was centred 43 km southeast of Tainan, at a depth of 23 km, the US Geological Survey said. Several aftershocks shook Tainan, Taiwan's weather bureau said.

One elderly woman, wrapped in blankets, was strapped to a board and slowly slid down a ramp to the ground as the cries of those still trapped rang out. Rescuers used dogs and acoustic equipment to pick up signs of life in the rubble.

Authorities said there were 92 households and 256 people living in the collapsed apartment building, but they did not know how many were actually there when the quake struck.

The fire department said 115 people had been taken to hospital from around Tainan.

SEVERAL BUILDINGS DAMAGED

Tainan mayor William Lai said it was too early to say if shoddy construction was responsible for the devastation at the apartment complex with the 17-storey tower which collapsed.

"We will chase the legal responsibility later," he told reporters.

President Ma Ying-jeou visited an emergency centre and hospital in Tainan while President-elect Tsai Ing-wen cancelled appointments to help coordinate rescue efforts.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office, which in is charge of Beijing's relations with the self-ruled island, said China was willing to provide help if needed, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said. Beijing regards Taiwan as a wayward province.

The quake initially cut power to 168,000 households in Tainan, many of whose residents lived through a massive 1999 tremor that killed about 2,400 people. Later, utility Taipower said power had been restored to all but about 900 households.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, the world's largest contract chipmaker, said some of its wafers made in Tainan had been damaged and some customers might be affected, though first-quarter shipments remained on track.

TSMC will step up production to make up for any delayed shipments, spokeswoman Elizabeth Sun said. It is a big supplier to global smartphone firms, including Apple Inc.

Other major Apple suppliers in Taiwan reported no impact on operations.

Taiwan lies in the seismically active "Pacific Ring of Fire". Television quoted Tainan residents as saying the quake felt worse than the 1999 tremor, centred in central Taiwan.

Taiwan's defence ministry said 810 soldiers had been mobilised for rescue efforts.

Authorities said cracks had been found in a dam but there was no immediate danger. Some bullet train services were suspended to the south as track inspections were carried out, Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp said in a statement.

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