Strong quake rocks Taiwan

A strong earthquake rocked Taiwan Sunday afternoon, causing damage to buildings and disruption to some sectors of the island’s telecommunication and transportation services. The earthquake also disrupted semiconductor manufacturing.

The earthquake, which had a magnitude of 6.8, was centred 9.6 km under water off the eastern coast of Taiwan and occurred at 2:53 p.m. local time, according to Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau. It registered an intensity of 6 in Ilan, 5 in Taipei, Miaoli, Hualien and Ilan City. In Hsinchu, home to much of Taipei’s semiconductor industry, the quake registered an intensity of 4, said the bureau.

Five people were killed when a crane tumbled off the Taipei Financial Centre that is currently under construction in Taipei’s Hsinyi district and fell onto a nearby street, according to ETTV. Across the island, 272 people were reported injured as the government mobilized soldiers and rescue workers in response to the earthquake.

In Taipei, the quake caused at least one apartment building to partially collapse and resulted in minor damage to homes and offices that left broken glass and concrete on some streets. The quake also caused Taipei’s Mass Rapid Transit system to shut down for several hours as inspectors checked rail lines for damage. An elevated highway in northern Taipei was also closed to traffic due to a crack that appeared in the road as a result of the quake.

Passengers fled the main terminal at Taipei’s domestic Sungshan Airport during the quake, which caused minor damage to the inside of the building. Taiwan’s main international airport, Chiang Kai-shek International Airport in Taoyuan, was reported operating normally after the quake.

In Hsinchu, the quake caused some semiconductor manufacturing operations to temporarily shut down although no serious damage was reported.

“Fortunately we know that there is no severe damage to the entire Hsinchu area,” said J.H. Tzeng, a spokesman for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC). Power and water supplies were operating normally in Hsinchu, he said.

The earthquake did result in a minor disruption to chip production at TSMC and rival chip-maker United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) as some chip-making equipment was shut down as a result of vibration. “Some sensitive equipment needed to be shut down for inspection and readjusted,” Tzeng said.

Both TSMC and UMC said no employees had been injured during the quake. By Monday afternoon, engineers at both companies had brought most affected chip-making equipment back online but the quake did cause some loss in production. “We lost between one half day and one day of wafer movement,” Tzeng said, saying the halt in production would affect the company’s second-quarter earnings.

A spokesman for UMC was not immediately able to confirm whether the quake had affected wafer production.

An aftershock, with a magnitude of 4.9, again rattled the island at 4:02 p.m. local time (0802 GMT), the Central Weather Bureau said. The second quake registered an intensity of 4 in Ilan, 2 in Hualien and 1 in Taipei. There had been five more smaller aftershocks ranging in magnitude from 4.0 to 4.8 until 6:09 a.m. local time Monday (2209 GMT Sunday).

An earthquake in June last year disrupted operations at the numerous semiconductor plants in the area and in September 1999 significant damage was caused to plants when a major earthquake hit Taiwan. The 1999 quake, which killed around 2,400 people, destroyed 50,000 buildings on the island and disrupted semiconductor and PC component shipments, causing prices to rise.

In neighbouring Japan, tidal wave warnings were issued for some islands in the Okinawa island chain and public broadcaster NHK broke into its Sunday afternoon programming to warn residents to stay away from the coast and move to higher ground. The warning was later cancelled.

Both Taiwan and Japan sit on the ‘ring of fire,’ an area of the northern Pacific where the Eurasian, Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates come together and in which earthquakes are frequent.