The quake measured 6.8 on the magnitude scale and the epicenter was just 20 km away from Kobe and 16km deep. It was the first quake to be certified as being over 7 on the Japanese scale of earthquake intensity (shindo). The shindo scale measures the intensity of shaking across Japan when an earthquake strikes. It is a more useful predictor of damage than magnitude because magnitude only measures the intensity at the source of the earthquake.
The earthquake only lasted about 20 seconds but killed 6,434 people. It toppled expressways, knocked down buildings and started massive fires. Many older homes in the Kobe area had heavy tile roofs to resist typhoons that came crashing down under the stress of the quake.
In the wake of the earthquake the Japanese government was widely criticized for its slow response to help victims. Building codes were also brought into question as many large structures collapsed during the quake. Japan suffers 20% of the world's earthquakes over magnitude 5.