Rescue workers dug through concrete and shattered glass in search of survivors and struggled today to deliver food and medical supplies to remote areas of Taiwan hardest hit by Tuesday's massive earthquake, which killed more than 1,700 people and left 100,000 homeless.
Officials of the Interior Ministry's disaster management center said the temblor -- which was measured at a magnitude of 7.6, exceeding even last month's devastating quake in Turkey -- left at least 1,712 people dead, 4,000 injured, 3,000 trapped in the rubble and 216 missing.
"They didn't have a chance," said a survivor here in Chungliao, not far from the quake's epicenter, as he surveyed a collapsed three-story residential block.
The quake knocked out power and water lines, crippled the nation's telephone and cellular phone systems and buckled roadways, hindering aid efforts.
Thousands of aftershocks, including two strong ones this morning with preliminary magnitudes of 6.8 and 6.1, left people fearful across the island of 21 million, with many sleeping on blankets in the streets, in parks and in stadiums rather than returning to their tottering homes.
The epicenter was in central Taiwan, striking particularly hard in Taichung and Nantou counties, south of Taipei, the island's capital. An estimated 700 people were killed in Taichung, but the destruction was more intense in small villages and towns such as Chungliao and Puli, near Nantou.
"Two died there," said builder Xiao Rulin, 41, waving a flashlight toward one flattened structure as he picked his way through the rubble on Yongan Street, one of Chungliao's main thoroughfares.
"About 30 people died in here," he said, pointing to the collapsed hulk of a three-story apartment building. "I think there were maybe 100 bodies between here and the bus stop."
The first floor of the building Xiao pointed out had disappeared. The back ends of more than a dozen sedans protruded from beneath the upper floors. The front ends were flattened under the sagging building like soda cans.
"I'm afraid to go home," said Liu Jiahe, 32, who huddled with his wife, two daughters and about 200 others in a schoolyard in Xinjie village. "My house could collapse at any moment. It isn't safe."
"It's too dangerous here. Go back to Taipei," urged Xie Deyang, an officer at the Xinjie police station across the street. "Tomorrow it will be worse." As he spoke, another tremor shook the police station, rattling the framed portrait of Taiwan's founder, Chiang Kai-shek, and sending Xie two steps toward the door.
Xie said he was jolted out of bed by the quake early Tuesday morning while sleeping in the police station. He ran outside in time to see a neighboring building collapse. A few moments later, he heard a large blast and saw flames climbing into the night sky. The Nantou winery, about 1.2 miles away, had apparently exploded.
Xie said he spent the morning pulling bodies from wrecked buildings, more than 26 in all. Later in the day, he was ordered to tour the mortuary at Nantou, where the facility was filled to capacity with more than 300 bodies. His wife was pulled through the door of their home in Nantou seconds before it collapsed, he said.
Many quake survivors blamed the high casualties on haphazard construction and local corruption in Nantou, a rural area that has experienced a building boom in recent years.
The damage has been less severe in Taipei, with several notable exceptions. The quake battered the 78-room Sungshan Hotel, crushing lower floors and tilting the structure against a neighboring building. About 100 people were rescued from the building; dozens of others were believed to be trapped inside.
The government closed financial markets Tuesday and urged workers to stay at home again today. School has been canceled in many areas.
After the strong aftershocks, state radio said cracks had been discovered at one of the island's largest reservoirs and warned downstream residents to evacuate their homes. It said some water was already flowing through the cracks.
President Lee Teng-hui flew briefly to Taichung on Tuesday afternoon to oversee rescue efforts. Later, he appealed to other nations for emergency assistance. Rescue crews from the United States, Singapore, Japan, Switzerland and Russia were on their way, as was a U.N. disaster assessment team.
A team of firefighters, doctors and paramedics from Fairfax County's Urban Search and Rescue Team -- many of them just back from rescue operations in Turkey -- is expected to arrive in Taiwan today .
Leaders of China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, also proffered aid, despite the fact that relations between Beijing and Taipei have been strained in recent months. Chinese President Jiang Zemin was quoted by the state-run New China News Agency as saying that the quake "hurt the hearts" of mainland Chinese.
The Taipei government expressed cautious thanks. "This would be a good beginning to improving ties," said Su Chi, chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, which is responsible for Taiwan's relations with China. "I hope we can work on this basis and make efforts together to build up stable and peaceful relations."
It could be several days, however, before those pledges are of any help to residents of towns like Chungliao. This morning Taiwanese rescue workers in orange jumpsuits used a single backhoe to clear debris from a collapsed structure where at least one survivor was thought to be inside.
Workers said they need more machines. Getting them there won't be easy. In some sections, the quake twisted the road to the village like old taffy, while other segments were blocked by landslides and fallen trees. Still, several Chungliao residents faulted the government for not doing enough to help. "They have not come because they think it is too dangerous," fumed an older man as he worked the buttons of his cell phone to no avail. "They are afraid."
Xiao said that when the earthquake knocked him out of bed at 1:47 Tuesday morning, he knew he didn't have much time. He roused the rest of the household -- 11 people in all, including his wife, his three children, his older brother's family and his elderly parents -- and shouted them out the door.
The speedy exit meant the difference between life and death. Another shock hit minutes later, flattening the two-story home as Xiao and his family huddled in darkness across the street. "The second time was the really big one," recalled Xiao, surveying what was left of his home about 20 hours later.
But there were more tales of tragedy than miraculous escape along the streets of Yongan, whose name means "eternal peace." Beyond the rumble of the backhoes, the dark road was eerily quiet, just quiet enough to hear, from under the debris of a collapsed apartment building, the insistent ring of an unanswered phone.