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Rescuers have found tin cans packed into the collapsed walls of a high-rise

At least 40 dead, 120 people still missing

CNN  — 

Paper lanterns celebrating the Chinese New Year dot Yongda Road, but there is no holiday spirit.

This is the street in Tainan, Taiwan, where the Weiguan Jinlong high-rise building collapsed in a magnitude-6.4 earthquake that rocked the region on Saturday.

The high-rise is where a majority of the 40 earthquake deaths have been recorded.

At least 24 people were killed in the building collapse, and efforts continue to find another 120 people who are missing, according to the latest government figures.

The grounds around the collapsed building are crowded with emergency responders and volunteers.

Huang Zhijie, a representative of Lions Club International, said volunteers are handing out food, snacks, hot beverages, clothing and blankets. Two of the volunteers from his organization have relatives who are missing in the rubble, Huang said. They continue to cook meals even as they wait for news of their loved ones.

A nearby izakaya – a kind of pub – has been converted to a makeshift meeting hub and resting place for rescuers. Restaurants and hotels are opening their doors and offering food or shelter to victims or their families.

Investigation ordered

The Taiwanese government has ordered an investigation into the building’s collapse, as images emerged showing tin cans built into the walls of the toppled complex.

Emergency workers came across the tin cans during the rescue operation, Taiwan’s state-owned Central News Agency reported. They appear to have been used as construction fillers in beams.

Taiwan’s interior minister and other officials said they would open an investigation into the building’s collapse when the rescue operation ends, according to CNA. Tainan Mayor Lai Ching-te said he would order a probe as well.

However, an engineer told CNA using tin cans “for such purposes in construction was not illegal prior to September 1999, but since then styrofoam and formwork boards have been used instead.”

The building is one of 11 that collapsed after the quake, CNA reported, but is the only high-rise to completely crumble.

“The building essentially collapsed onto itself,” Elise Hu, an NPR correspondent who was in Taipei when the quake hit, told CNN. “When you see the aerial images around Tainan, the rest of the buildings are standing. But this particular apartment complex is as damaged as it is.”

01:35 - Source: CNN
Earthquake rocks city in southern Taiwan

‘I was trapped’

A woman was pulled alive from the rubble Sunday night local time after being trapped for 40 hours, CNN affiliate SETTV reported.

The woman – identified as Mrs. Tsao – was found with her husband and son. The three were holding each other, though Mrs. Tsao was the sole survivor.

Five other family members are missing, SETTV said.

Chien, her 3-year-old daughter and her husband were in their bedroom in Tainan –Taiwan’s oldest city – when the earthquake struck.

“I was trapped in a room in a building toppled by the quake,” said the mother, who gave only her surname.

“The smell of gas was thick in the air, and I was worried that I would be killed by an explosion if not crushed to death in the collapsed building,” she told CNA.

It was a frightening ordeal, one that she has dealt with before.

She lived in central Taiwan before moving to Tainan and survived the 1999 quake that killed more than 2,000 people.

“I moved to Tainan after I got married and now I have encountered another major earthquake,” she told CNA.

‘Ring of fire’

Before rescuers freed them, Chien and her family were trapped for three hours in their sixth-floor apartment in the 16-story residential building.

In all, more than 500 people were injured, CNA reported. Ninety-two people remain hospitalized late Sunday, according to Tainan’s disaster response office.

Taiwan is in the so-called “Ring of Fire,” an area in the Pacific Ocean where intense tectonic plate movement causes frequent earthquakes.

“Taiwan is very used to earthquakes and tremors, but this is far more significant than the island has seen in quite a while,” Elise Hu, an NPR correspondent who was in Taipei when the quake hit, told CNN.

Read more: How earthquakes are measured

One woman told CNN affiliate EBC that rescuers had to cut a hole in order to help her family get out.

“Fortunately we were stuck under a space created by a baby crib and a closet door, so that things won’t fall on us and air was able to get in,” she said from the hospital, where she was being treated for a leg injury. “I was so afraid.”

The country’s interior minister and other officials said they would conduct an investigation into the building’s collapse, according to CNA.

The quake struck as many in Taiwan prepared to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

President Ma Ying-jeou canceled his traditional Chinese New Year address to oversee rescue and recovery operations at the national disaster headquarters, his spokeswoman said.

It’s one of the country’s biggest holidays, and some people have as many as nine days off, Hu said.

“If you can imagine something like this happening during Thanksgiving holiday weekend or Christmas travel, that’s the equivalent of what’s happening here in Taiwan right now,” she said.

CNN’s Tiffany Ap, Joshua Berlinger and Kevin Wang contributed to this report.