OJIYA, Japan – A series of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks rattled northern Japan on Saturday, killing at least 16 people and reportedly injuring more than 900 as buildings crumbled, a bullet train derailed and roadways were torn apart.
At least four people were missing Saturday night, the government said. Throughout the region, electric, gas and telephone services were knocked out and water and sewage mains burst.
The quakes – the most powerful recorded as magnitude 6.8 – were spread over several hours and centered on Ojiya, about 160 miles northwest of Tokyo. Still, buildings swayed in the Japanese capital.
“I’ve never felt anything like it before,” said Yoichi Kato, the owner of a 7-11 store in Kashiwazaki, about 12 miles west of the epicenter. “It was so strong, I was too surprised to be scared.”
The quake knocked bottles and food off the convenience store’s shelves, but otherwise caused his shop limited damage, Kato said.
The first quake hit at 5:56 p.m. and was centered about 12 miles beneath the surface, the Meteorological Agency said. At least six more tremors hit over the following hours, including quakes of magnitude 6.2 and 5.9, the agency said.
The second floor of a Jusco nationwide supermarket chain store was smashed.
“There were 300 customers inside when the earthquake hit, and everyone tried to grab something nearby to keep from being knocked off their feet,” said Reiko Takahashi, the store’s manager, as she stood guard to prevent looting or possible injuries. “Several people were hurt by glass shards and falling debris.”
Teams were dispatched to assess damage and aid residents but darkness and buckled roads hampered their efforts, officials said. Eleven military helicopters fanned out to check the damage and help with rescue operations, the agency said.
The quakes were centered in relatively rural areas. The government has estimated that some 7,000 people would die if such a powerful quake hit the Tokyo area.
The victims included a 34-year-old man struck by a falling wall as he fled his home in Tokamachi and a 55-year-old man buried by his concrete garage wall.
Takejiro Hoshino, 75, lost his 12-year-old grandson when their house collapsed. “I got out and then we all went back to try to save the others, but it was too late.”
Two others were stuck in a house buried by a landslide in Ojiya, and four people were missing in Nagaoka city after two homes collapsed, NHK said.
Nearly 50 people were injured by flying glass or items that fell from shelves in Tokamachi and Ojiya cities, according to media reports.
Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency said early today that 16 people had died and 350 were injured. Kyodo News agency, however, put the toll of injured at some 900.
In Ojiya, 5,290 people took refuge at 50 different evacuation centers, while many more were spending the night in their cars, said city official Mikio Oya.
The jolt triggered an automatic safety device that temporarily halted train services, according to media reports. Railway officials said at least two trains, including a bullet train, derailed and some cars tipped over in Niigata prefecture, but nobody was injured.
The temblors came just days after Japan’s deadliest typhoon in more than a decade, which left 79 dead and a dozen others missing.