A 6.8-magnitude quake rocked the largely rural Niigata prefecture Saturday evening, rattling buildings as far away as the Japanese capital. Several strong quakes followed through the night, and aftershocks continued to jolt the area Sunday.
The Japanese government said 19 people were killed and 655 were injured, while public broadcaster NHK, citing hospital data, said 21 people were killed and more than 1,800 were injured. The dead included five children, the youngest a 2-month-old infant.
The quakes tore apart highways, bursting water and sewage mains and knocking out power to nearly 300,000 homes. Some 61,000 people - many of them elderly - had to be evacuated. Officials handed out blankets as a guard against chilly nights and flew in bottled water.
Japan's military used helicopters to airlift stranded villagers from a riverside hamlet, Shiotani, that was cut off when the bridge connecting it to Ojiya was toppled. Several other villages were isolated, including Yamagoshi, a mountain village of 600, where a landslide swept away the only road and upended homes and cars. Residents awaited airlifted food and other supplies.
Takejiro Hoshino, 75, lost his 12-year-old grandson when their house collapsed.
"I got out and then we all went back to try to save the others, but it was too late," Hoshino said.
The injured overwhelmed small local hospitals, where patients were being treated in the hallways. The earthquake was the deadliest in Japan since the 1995 earthquake in the western city of Kobe, which killed more than 6,000 people.
"Carrying out rescue efforts is the most important task right now," Tsutomu Takebe, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said on a talk program aired by NHK. "The government is making all the effort to assess the extent of the damage."
With temperatures expected to drop to 55 degrees, some 60 people crowded into the lobby of the Nagaoka City Hall to take advantage of the heating, bringing thin foldable mattresses or lawn chairs from home.
"I don't have any water, electricity or gas in my apartment, so I have no choice but to be here," said Naomi Matsuki, a Nagaoka resident.
Aftershocks were another concern.
"I live on the top floor, so I really felt it wasn't safe to stay at home," said Matsuki. "But I have no idea when I'll be able to go back, so I'm very worried."
Japan's Meteorological Agency registered 280 aftershocks — most too weak to be felt — and warned that another temblor of similar power could rip across the region over the next week.
Two trains derailed, but no injuries were reported. One was a bullet train, the first to jump its tracks since Japan began running such trains in 1964.
The first quake hit at 5:56 p.m. Saturday and was centered in Ojiya, 160 miles northwest of Tokyo, the Meteorological Agency said. At least a half dozen more tremors hit intermittently over the following hours, including magnitude-6.2 and 5.9 quakes, cutting a swath of destruction across Niigata prefecture.
Sewage and water mains burst, gas and telephone services were down. Homes in 36 cities, towns and villages in Niigata prefecture had no water. Close to 124,000 homes were still without power Sunday afternoon, Tohoku Electric said on its Web site. A major nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric in Kashiwazaki, however, was operating normally.
Akiko Sato was one of about a dozen people in tuxedos or formal dresses who sought refuge at Ojiya city hall.
"We were on our way back from a wedding," Sato said. "We had to spend the night in our bus. We were just supposed to pass through. I'm exhausted."
A magnitude 6 quake can cause severe damage to homes and other buildings if centered in a heavily populated area.
The temblors came just days after Japan's deadliest typhoon in more than a decade left 79 people dead and a dozen missing. Japan, which rests atop several tectonic plates, is among the world's most earthquake-prone countries.