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Japan Quake Response Hits High Gear; Death Toll Tops 4,600

January 21, 1995

KOBE, Japan (AP) _ Crews pulled three elderly people to safety today from the wreckage of their homes as Japan’s rescue effort finally rolled into high gear four days after the devastating earthquake.

Rain was forecast Sunday. Rescuers feared a downpour could trigger mud slides, toppling weakened buildings and adding to the misery of tens of thousands of homeless people camped in vacant lots and fields.

The death toll from Tuesday’s quake _ the deadliest in Japan in more than 70 years _ climbed today to 4,693. Officials said about 40 percent of the dead had not been identified since most were elderly people who lived alone.

The strongest aftershock since the quake jolted Kobe this evening, but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.

Rescuers accelerated efforts to find 256 others still listed as missing.

``Finding the last citizens who are trapped, that’s our top priority right now,″ said city spokesman Tomoaki Watanabe. ``We’re using the (tracker) dogs all over trying to check every house. We’re still finding people.″

Another quake _ with a magnitude of 6.2 _ shook Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido today, but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

The quake struck at 5:47 p.m. and was centered 44 miles below the sea floor off Nemuro on the eastern tip of Hokkaido, about 800 miles northeast of Kobe, the Central Meteorological Agency said.

On the first weekend since Tuesday’s quake, thousands of people from outside the Kobe area descended on this stricken city, carrying food, water and other supplies to friends and relatives.

Ferries and trains from Osaka and other cities were jammed. At one station on the outskirts of Kobe, people were lined up six abreast waiting to board a train. Each was wearing a knapsack full of food or carrying boxes of bottled water.

On Friday, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, under criticism for the slow pace of desperately needed aid, admitted to parliament that his coalition government’s response to the quake had been ``confused.″

``It is imperative that we rethink and restructure our disaster relief policies,″ Murayama said.

The Japanese appear to have recovered from the shock of the quake and have rallied to the challenge of rebuilding what was one of the country’s most cosmopolitan industrial centers.

Electricity had been restored to much of the city, Watanabe said, although more than 850,000 households in Kobe and surrounding Hyogo Prefecture were still without water and natural gas.

Many small shops reopened, although large supermarkets, banks and department stores remained closed. About 100 schools reopened for half-day sessions, radio reports said.

Events in Kobe, however, have prompted the Japanese to reconsider some of their long-cherished assumptions about the country’s ability to use its technological prowess as a defense against nature.

Makiko Tanaka, director general of the Science and Technology Agency, visited the Hamaoka nuclear power plant in central Japan today and told reporters she was assured that the plant could withstand even stronger quakes than the one that devastated Kobe. But she urged a review of all nuclear plants because ``anything beyond imagination can happen.″

Japan has at least 47 nuclear reactors and intends to use nuclear power to provide 45 percent of its electricity by 2010, up from about 28 percent.

As part of the accelerated relief operation, about 36,000 soldiers, police and firemen have been sent to Kobe, along with rescue teams from Switzerland and France.

They were joined by thousands of Japanese who volunteered to fill the gaps where the government had failed. At one evacuation center, 125 volunteers were distributing food to the homeless or performing other duties. The day before, only five volunteers were manning the center.

Rescue efforts appeared better organized today.

Three people _ two 79-year-old men and a 63-year-old woman _ were rescued today at two locations in the city, police said. There were no details about their conditions.

At one collapsed apartment house in the Ashiya district, rescuers approached the rubble late Friday and called out: ``Is there anyone inside?″

A voice called back: ``Here, here!″ A force of 55 police, firemen and others was quickly assembled, and five trucks with digging equipment soon appeared.

As bystanders shouted encouragement, rescuers finally dug 47-year-old Eiko Koibuchi from the rubble after cutting through the sofa bed where she had been sleeping when the building collapsed.

Her husband had been found dead two days before, but she suffered only severe bruises.

Elsewhere, construction crews and volunteers were busy throughout the city today clearing debris and repairing the damage. The staccato bursts of hundreds of jackhammers reverberated through the streets.

Near the main railway station, crews laid fresh asphalt over cracks in the ground.

Workers with heavy cranes were removing huge chunks of concrete from a supposedly quake-proof elevated highway that toppled during the quake.

Update hourly