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Quakes hit Japan; 3 dead, over 300 injured
Updated: 2004-10-23 23:23

Firefighters are seen on the roof of a destroyed house after powerful earthquakes at Ojiya, northwestern Japan. [AP]
Several powerful earthquakes rattled northwestern Japan over a two-hour span on Saturday, toppling homes, causing blackouts, cutting water and gas supplies and derailing two trains. At least three people died and more than 300 were injured, the Japanese news media reported.

The quakes - the first of which measured magnitude 6.8 and struck at 5:56 p.m. - were centred near the city of Ojiya, 260 kilometres northwest of Tokyo. They occurred about 20 kilometres beneath the Earth's surface, the Japanese Meteorological Agency said.

At least a half dozen more tremors, the strongest of which hit intermittently over two hours, included quakes of magnitude 6.2 and 5.9. Aftershocks followed, some just as forceful, the agency said.

News media reports said the shaking in some parts of Niigata was so severe that people had difficulty standing. Buildings in Tokyo swayed several times for up to a minute.

Officials said teams had been dispatched to assess the damage and offer assistance to residents but darkness and buckled roads were hampering their efforts. Eleven military helicopters fanned out to check the damage and help with rescue operations, a Defence Agency spokesman said.

Two people in Ojiya died at a hospital after being hit by falling rocks and other objects, NHK and Kyodo News reported. A 34-year-old man was struck by a falling wall as he fled his home in Tokamachi and later died, other news media reported.

Two others were stuck in a house that had been buried in a landslide in Ojiya, and four were missing in Nagaoka city after two homes collapsed, NHK said.

Objects falling from shelves injured nearly 50 people in Tokamachi and Ojiya cities. At least 250 others were reported injured - many by flying glass - in nearby towns and cities, the Japanese news media reported.

Sewage and water mains burst and gas and telephone services were down and about 250,000 homes had lost power, officials said.

Several homes were on fire after the tremors, Toshimoto Onda, a Nagaoka city disaster official, told NHK.

Near Ojiya, trees and soil on a hillside sheared away, burying at least five cars and injuring several people, NHK said. Building windows shattered, walls cracked and books and files fell off shelves, Ojiya city official Ei Yoshizawa said.

The jolt triggered an automatic safety device that temporarily halted train services, according to news media reports. Railway officials said a bullet train carrying about 150 passengers derailed and some of the cars tipped to their side near Nagaoka city, in Niigata prefecture, but nobody appeared to be hurt. Another train headed to Niigata from Tokyo jumped its tracks but no injuries were reported, NHK said.

The Meteorological Agency said there was no threat of a tsunami, or potentially dangerous waves triggered by seismic activity.

The tremor came just days after Japan's deadliest typhoon in more than a decade, which left 77 people dead and more than a dozen missing.

Typhoon Tokage, the record eighth typhoon to hit Japan this year, ripped through the country earlier this week with high waves and rapid mudslides, demolishing homes and flooding dozens of communities in western Japan before losing power and disappearing over the Pacific Ocean.

Authorities said there were concerns that the shaking could cause topsoil loosened by the storm's torrential rains to slide down hillsides.

Japan, which rests atop several tectonic plates, is among the world's most earthquake-prone countries.

A magnitude-6.0 quake can cause widespread damage to homes and other buildings if centred in a heavily populated area.

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