Algeria’s deadliest earthquake in years shook the capital region Wednesday night, killing more than 530 people and injuring nearly 5,000, the government said.
As rescue workers toiled in the darkness, scrabbling at mounds of rubble to reach people trapped in ruined homes, state media appealed for medical staff to report for work to cope with mounting casualties.
“Buildings have collapsed. Entire families are underneath,” Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said on television. Because so many structures had collapsed and people were unaccounted for, he said the death toll may be “unfortunately partial.”
“This is a misfortune that has struck the Algerian people,” Ouyahia said.
The quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey said was magnitude 6.7, hit about 7:45 p.m., cutting electricity in some neighborhoods of the capital and causing panic throughout the city. It was followed by scores of aftershocks. The quake was felt as far away as Spain.
One of the hardest-hit places was Rouiba, a relatively prosperous city about 20 miles from the eastern suburbs of Algiers. One building after another was reduced to a pile of rubble in a scene of utter devastation.
“I have never seen such a disaster in my life. Everything has collapsed,” said Yazid Khelfaoui, who lost his mother in the quake. The rubble of his apartment building was all around him.
State television showed dozens of bodies lined up under sheets and blankets, some those of children. Among the wounded treated at a hospital, one was a child, bandaged around the head and with blood on his face.
“There were so many wounded, we couldn’t count them,” one doctor said.
Women huddled with their children in the streets, worried about going home for fear of aftershocks and concerned about facing the cold without shelter.
The power outage affecting much of Algiers hampered rescue efforts.
Also badly hit was the coastal city of Boumerdas, where media reports spoke of people jumping from windows as they tried to save themselves.
“I saw the earth tremble. I saw people jump from the window of the hotel,” Icham Mouiss of Boumerdas told French television station LCI.
State television said a small hospital had collapsed in Boumerdas, but it gave few details.
“It’s about saving lives tonight,” the prime minister told state radio early today. “It’s a tragic moment.” He said security forces were on alert to stop looting.
A school collapsed in Thenia, the nearest big town to the quake’s epicenter, where dozens died.
Four families who lived there were believed to be buried beneath the school.
Interior Minister Nouredine Yazid Zerhouni traveled to Thenia and Boumerdas. A call for blood donors was issued. Medical personnel and employees of Sonelgaz, the state company that supplies electricity, were asked to pitch in and help.
State media broke into programs to urge people to go outdoors and stay away from buildings: “Leave your home, turn off the gas and don’t use elevators. Stay calm,” they said.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center said the epicenter was 45 miles east of Algiers, six miles below ground. A spokesman said that made casualties likely given the density of the population.
The quake was the biggest to hit the North African nation since 1980, when a temblor measuring 7.7 killed at least 4,500 people in the country’s west, the spokesman added.
In 1994, about 150,000 people were left homeless by an earthquake in northwestern Algeria, with the death toll over 170. A quake in 1999 killed 22 people.
Most of Algeria’s 32 million people live in the north, along the coast and away from the desert. Algiers is home to at least 2.6 million people.