Strong Quake Rocks Northwestern Japan

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

KASHIWAZAKI, Japan – A strong earthquake struck northwestern Japan on Monday, destroying hundreds of homes, buckling roads and bridges and causing a fire at a nuclear power plant. At least five people were killed and hundreds were injured.

The quake hit the region shortly after 10 a.m. local time and was centered off the coast of Niigata state. Buildings swayed 160 miles away in Tokyo. The hardest-hit area appeared to be Kashiwazaki, a city of about 90,000 in Niigata

Japan’s Meteorological Agency measured the quake at a 6.8 magnitude. The U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors quakes around the world, said it registered 6.7.

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“I was so scared _ the violent shaking went on for 20 seconds,” Ritei Wakatsuki, who was on her job in a convenience store in Kashiwazaki. “I almost fainted by the fear of shaking.”

Flames and billows of black smoke poured from the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant, which automatically shut down during the quake. The fire, in an electrical transformer, was put out about two hours later and there was no release of radioactivity or damage to the reactors, said Motoyasu Tamaki, a Tokyo Electric Power Co. official.

Tsunami warnings were issued along the coast of Niigata but later lifted.

A series of smaller aftershocks rattled the area, including one with a 5.8 magnitude. The Meteorological Agency warned that the aftershocks could continue for a week.

The quake hit on Marine Day, a national holiday in Japan, when most people would have been at home.

Four women and two men _ all either in their 70s or 80s _ died after buildings collapsed on them, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo.

National broadcaster NHK reported more than 700 people were hurt, with injuries including broken bones, cuts and bruises.

Nearly 300 homes in Kashiwazaki _ a city known mainly for its fishing industry _ were destroyed and some 2,000 people evacuated, officials said.

The quake buckled seaside roads and bridges, and left fissures three feet wide in the ground along the coast.

A ceiling collapsed in a gym in Kashiwazaki where about 200 people had gathered for a badminton tournament, and one person was hurt, Kyodo reported. The quake also knocked a train car off the rails while it was stopped at a station. No one was injured

Several bullet train services linking Tokyo to northern and northwestern Japan were suspended. More than 60,000 homes were without water and 34,000 without gas as of late Monday. More than 25,000 households in the zone were without power.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, campaigning in southern Japan for parliamentary elections later this month, was to return to Tokyo to deal with the quake, and the government had set up a task force, reports said.

“We want to do all we can to ensure safety … and to quell everyone’s concerns,” he said.

Niigata Airport, which had suspended flights shortly after the quake, resumed services after finding no damage.

Japan sits atop four tectonic plates and is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries. The last major quake to hit the capital, Tokyo, killed some 142,000 people in 1923, and experts say the capital has a 90 percent chance of suffering a major quake in the next 50 years.

In October 2004, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake hit Niigata, killing 40 people and damaging more than 6,000 homes. It was the deadliest to hit Japan since 1995, when a magnitude-7.2 quake killed 6,433 people in the western city of Kobe.

Associated Press writers Kozo Mizoguchi and Chisaki Watanabe in Tokyo contributed to this report.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)