TOKYO -- Rescue workers airlifted residents out of isolated villages and sifted through wreckage for earthquake survivors yesterday, a day after a series of strong temblors hit northwest Japan, killing at least 21 people and injuring more than 1,500.
Dozens of quakes and tremors Saturday evening, the first and strongest measuring magnitude 6.8, rocked a largely rural area centered around the town of Ojiya, about 160 miles northwest of Tokyo. As smaller aftershocks continued to jolt the area yesterday, Japan's Self-Defense Forces launched rescue operations, helicoptering out dozens of people from villages that had been cut off by damaged roads and bridges.
Tens of thousands of people spent a second night in emergency shelters, and more than 100,000 homes remained without power. Japan's NHK television reported late yesterday that the death toll had climbed to 21. At least five people were reported missing. The fatalities ranged from an infant boy to people in their 70s, officials said. Local hospitals in the region appeared overwhelmed, and television broadcasts showed patients being treated in waiting rooms.
Damaged and blocked roads continued to make surveying the extent of the wreckage difficult. Japan's National Policy Agency said at least 76 homes had completely or partially collapsed, and it reported extensive damage to infrastructure.
The disaster marked the deadliest quake in Japan since a massive tremor struck the western port city of Kobe in January 1995, killing more than 6,000 people.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dispatched disaster officials to the affected areas yesterday and said the government would promptly earmark funds for a major rebuilding effort.
The series of quakes began at 5:56 p.m. Saturday. The force of the first one derailed two cars of a bullet train heading north from Tokyo to Niigata. Although no one was injured in the rail accident, it marked the first derailment of Japan's trademark high-speed trains since they began running in 1964. East Japan Railway Co. told Japan's Kyodo news service yesterday that it would take several weeks to repair the section of the tracks damaged by the quake.
Sewage and water mains burst, and gas and telephone service was down in much of the affected region. Officials were struggling to restore running water to 36 cities, towns, and villages in the hard-hit Niigata prefecture on the Sea of Japan, according to Kyodo.
"I was really hoping to see the dawn as we had no lights due to the blackout," Shoji Takizawa, 68, of the town of Toka, near Ojiya, told the Kyodo news service. Along with his wife and son, Takizawa, like many in the region, said he spent the night in a car.
The earthquakes hit just days after Japan's deadliest typhoon in more than a decade left 79 dead and a dozen others missing. The typhoon soaked the region hit by the quake, which contributed to at least 37 mudslides, officials said.
Japan lies in one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world, accounting for about 20 percent of quakes of magnitude 6 or greater.