Families in Taiwan quake epicentre pick up the pieces of their lives

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Residents carry their washing machine salvaged from the damaged Tongshuai Building following the April 3 earthquake in Hualien

Residents wearing hard hats and carrying large backpacks stood outside a building Friday with a crumbling facade in Hualien, the epicentre of Taiwan’s biggest earthquake in 25 years, waiting to be allowed in to collect their belongings.

“You have 17 minutes — now you can go up!” said an announcer with a loudspeaker, as a small group hurried into Tongshuai building, which was declared “dangerous and uninhabitable”.

The lobby’s floor was littered with glass and broken tiles, and a calendar behind the reception had its page torn to April 3.

It marks a magnitude-7.4 tremor that was felt across the island. In epicentre Hualien, it left buildings tilted, tunnels crushed, and landslides tumbling down the mostly mountainous region.

Hundreds are trapped deeper within the mountains, either stranded in luxury hotels or a hostel, as well as in tunnels and an elementary school.

Despite the quake’s severity, authorities have so far confirmed at least 10 dead, and are racing against the clock — and weather conditions — to excavate the blocked roads around the coastal county.

Debris is seen scattered around the lobby of an apartment building, partially damaged in the April 3 earthquake in Hualien

A tilting building in Hualien’s main city has emerged as the most recognisable symbol from the disaster — leaning at a perilous 45-degree angle as construction workers hurried to demolish it.

Ten minutes away, Tongshuai building’s outer damages look less severe — just gnarled wiring frames and crushed windows on the first floor.

But inside, its marbled walls in the lobby had fallen, while its stairwells were littered with crumbling concrete.

Residents were allowed to enter for 15-18 minutes to retrieve their things, carrying torches to navigate around the debris.

Some opted to throw mattresses and bags of clothes off windows, while a young mother slowly carried a cot out for her 10-month-old baby.

“We are told the building has become dangerous and there probably won’t be another chance to move our things afterwards,” said the 24-year-old woman surnamed Chen, adding that she did not feel the powerful aftershock as she was busy trying to move everything out.

Debris is seen along a staircase of an apartment building, partially damaged in the April 3 earthquake, in Hualien

When the quake hit on Wednesday morning, Chen said “I was only thinking about protecting my baby at the time”.

She had left her home in a hurry, fretting about things that feel small now — like “if the eggs were broken or how I would reorganise”, she told AFP.

Nearby, an elderly woman cradled her rice cooker, while another man with a headlight on his motorbike helmet carried a standing fan. One couple heaved a washing machine out.

Wang Zhi-yu, 50, said she was very thankful that the borough chief allowed them to go inside to get their things.

The lottery store owner said she and her family had luckily been at work when the quake hit.

Residents salvage a cot from the damaged Tongshuai Building following the earthquake in Hualien

“When we first saw it, we just saw the outside — we had no idea what the inside looked like,” she said, tearing up as she spoke.

“Later when the authorities stuck a red sign (warning that the building was dangerous) on it, that’s when we knew we could not return to our home.”

She had lived in the area for around six years, but only bought her apartment in Tongshuai building about three years ago.

“I have a lot of emotions regarding this place because the area here is really very good,” she said, adding that she was unsure about where her family would stay next.

Chen, the young mother, was asking similar questions.

“I was planning to go back to work (post-pregnancy) — but after the earthquake, I am not sure if I should go back to work or stay with my baby,” she said.