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Western Japan suffers earthquake as F1 gets the shakes

The strongest seismic tremors to hit Japan since the calamitous Kobe earthquake five years ago shook western Japan on Friday at lunchtime, injuring at least 39 people, destroying some 200 homes and putting the area on alert for aftershocks, although no tidal waves are predicted.

The earthquake, measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, struck at around 1:30 PM, with its epicenter some six miles underground in largely rural western Tottori province, some 300 miles south of the Suzuka circuit where the Formula 1 circus has gathered for the penultimate Grand Prix of 2000.

Speaking from his official residence, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori stated that there had been no deaths so far and that he did not plan to set up an emergency task force. Prime Minister Mori's head of crisis management, Tadao Ando, told the world's media that :"We believe that the quake has not caused any large number of casualties or any huge damage,''

At least 39 people were injured, some of whom were caught when a Shinto shrine collapsed, and two people who were caught in a mudslide on construction sites in the Shimane province, where more than 200 homes were damaged. The casualty list is expected to rise as more of the damage is unearthed.

The quake was Japan's strongest since January 17, 1995, when more than 6,000 people were killed by a devastating quake in the western port city the Kobe. This time rural areas were the hardest hit although the shock could be felt in Suzuka and in Tokyo, about 360 miles east of the worst-hit areas.

There remains a 40 percent chance of aftershocks measuring more than six on the Richter scale, and the Japanese Defense Agency immediately scrambled reconnaissance aircraft and F-15 fighter planes to gather metrological data while the coastguard also joined in emergency operations, dispatching 19 aircraft and 50 patrol boats.

The Shinkansen bullet train was abandoned on its Tokyo to Osaka and Toyohashi to Shin-Iwakuni routes until the rail lines were confirmed safe. As a precautionary measure, some smaller airports were closed for checks. Fortunately the nuclear power stations in the Tottori province were already shut down for servicing and inspection.

At Suzuka, Bridgestone's press officer Melanie Holmes explained how the quake affected the first day's action at the Japanese Grand Prix: "It happened a little after lunch and at first nobody said anything to each other because we were almost embarrassed. The floor was moving and I felt dizzy, I thought that we were in a motorhome and it was rocking but then realized I was in a solid garage."

"Outside people were coming out of the taller buildings and running about because they were swaying, but on the ground it was so slow that everyone thought it was just happening to them. Then the Japanese started running around all concerned because obviously they knew what was going on, while us gaijins were just confused. A lot of people felt giddy for a good hour though, and the Benetton mechanics got big glasses of water on top of their packing cases to see if it came again."

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