At least 21 people were killed when the most powerful earthquake to strike Albania in decades shook the capital Tirana and the country’s west and north on Tuesday, tearing down buildings and burying residents under rubble.
Residents, some carrying babies, fled apartment buildings in Tirana and the western port of Durres after the 6.4 magnitude quake struck shortly before 4 a.m. (0300 GMT).
The Balkan country was jolted by 100 aftershocks after the main tremor, two of them of magnitude 5, testing strained nerves.
In the northern town of Thumane, Marjana Gjoka, 48, was sleeping in her apartment on the fourth floor of a five-storey building when the quake shattered the top of the building.
“The roof collapsed on our head and I don’t know how we escaped. God helped us,” said Gjoka, whose three-year-old niece was among four people in the apartment when the quake struck.
The quake was centered 30 km (19 miles) west of Tirana, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said, and was also felt across the Balkans and in the southern Italian region of Puglia.
Hours later a magnitude 5.4 earthquake hit Bosnia, with an epicenter 75 km (45 miles) south of Sarajevo, monitors said.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Thirteen bodies were pulled from collapsed buildings in Durres, Albania’s main port and a tourism spot, officials said, adding that 44 people had been pulled alive from the wreckage.
After a 14-hour ordeal, a 30-year-old woman was pulled alive from the ruins of a six-storey building in Durres, two hours after police extracted the body of her eight-year-old daughter.
At dusk, a woman called Bukuri Morina and her family of 10 joined thousands of others to spend the night at the Durres soccer stadium.
“We are afraid to go back to our apartment,” she said. “There are cracks all over and we are afraid that we will have the same destiny as people in Thumane.”
Located along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, between Greece and Macedonia, Albania experiences regular seismic activity.
A 5.6 magnitude quake hit Albania on Sept. 21, damaging about 500 houses. The Defence Ministry said then it was the most powerful quake in Albania in the last 30 years.
The images of damage from Tuesday’s quake suggested it was stronger than one in 1979 which razed a district of a northern town. Neither of those two earlier quakes caused deaths.
Everything kept falling
In Thumane, seven people, including a mother and son, were found dead in the rubble of apartment buildings and a man died in the town of Kurbin after jumping out of a building.
Firefighters, police and civilians were removing the debris from collapsed buildings in Thumane. Some used a mechanical digger to claw at collapsed masonry and remove a tangle of metal and cables. Others scrabbled with their bare hands.
Most of the collapsed dwellings were made of brick, a Reuters reporter said.
Two people were pulled from rubble in Thumane four hours after the quake, a Reuters reporter said. Doctors said they were in a bad condition.
“Everything at home kept falling down,” Refik, a Tirana resident, said of the impact on his sixth-floor apartment.
“We were awake because of the previous quakes, but the last one shook us around,” he told Reuters, referring to smaller tremors recorded in the hour before the main quake.
Rescuers told local media one of the dead was an elderly woman who saved her grandson by cradling him with her body.
Defence Minister Olta Xhacka said the quake’s epicenter was in Durres. It was followed by 100 aftershocks. At least 135 people were injured, with 72 hospitalized, she said.
“Durres and Thumane are the areas worst hit. Rescue-and-save work continues in the collapsed buildings there,” she said as troops pulled a victim from a hotel in Durres.
Italy, France, Romania, Turkey, Greece and Croatia sent specialized rescue equipment. Neighboring Kosovo sent a special unit with tracker dogs and Serbia was sending 13 officers.
An unidentified man, with a wound dressing on his right cheek, told News24 TV his daughter and niece were among those trapped in a collapsed apartment building in Durres.
“I talked with my daughter and niece on the phone. They said they are well and are waiting for the rescue. Could not talk to my wife. There are other families, but I could not talk to them,” the man said.
Seismologist Rrapo Ormeni of Albania’s Institute of Geosciences, Energy, Water and Environment, said a 6.4 quake was considered a strong one.
“Damage at the epicenter will be considerable because of its high energy, the magnitude it has,” Ormeni said. “Such quakes are felt in a wider area due to its major depth and magnitude. It has been felt all around the territory of our country but also abroad, up to Bulgaria, Bosnia, Italy and other (countries).”
The quake was felt along the Albanian coast as well as neighboring Kosovo, Montenegro, Greece, and parts of southern Serbia.
Authorities called on people in the most affected areas to stay out of their homes and avoid driving in the affected areas to allow emergency vehicles free access. Many reported seeing cracks in their apartment walls.
All government agencies were on alert and “intensively working to save lives at the fatal spots in Durres and Thumane,” Rama said.
About 400 soldiers were setting up tents in Durres and in Fushe Kruje near Thumane in the north to house survivors left homeless by the quake.
Rama said neighboring countries, the European Union and the United States had offered help. By early afternoon, rescue teams from neighboring Kosovo, Montenegro, Italy and one of two teams en route from Greece had arrived.
Greece was sending about 40 rescuers, with one 26-member search and rescue team with two sniffer dogs and specialized equipment flying from Athens to Tirana on board a military aircraft, while the second team headed to the quake zone by road from northern Greece.
Italy sent specialized urban search and rescue teams from three Italian regions while Serbia, Romania, Turkey and North Macedonia were also sending search-and-rescue teams.
At least three apartment buildings and the power distribution station were damaged in Thumane.
An earthquake in September in roughly the same area damaged hundreds of homes.
The Balkan nation is the poorest country in Europe, with per capita income a quarter of the European Union average, according to the International Monetary Fund.