Rescue crews with excavators searched for survivors trapped in toppled apartment buildings and hotels Tuesday after a powerful predawn earthquake in Albania killed at least 21 people and injured more than 600.
The magnitude 6.4 quake was felt across the southern Balkans and was followed by multiple aftershocks, with several above magnitude 5. In nearby Bosnia, another temblor with a preliminary magnitude of 5.4 struck southeast of Sarajevo, the capital, and was felt there. There were no immediate reports of casualties and only minor damage in that earthquake.
The quake in Albania collapsed at least three apartment buildings while people slept, and rescue crews were working to free people believed trapped. There was no indication as to how many people might still be buried in the rubble.
The worst-hit areas were the coastal town of Durres, 20 miles west of the capital Tirana, where nine of the dead were found in collapsed buildings, and the northern town of Thumane, where another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, the Defense Ministry said. One person died after jumping from his home to escape in Kurbin, 30 miles north of the capital, while another person was killed on a road that collapsed in the northern town of Lezha.
Local television stations showed video of a young boy being pulled from a collapsed building in Durres after an excavator moved a broken slab of concrete and local men pulled mangled reinforcement bars out of the way.
Hours later, TV showed people cheering as another child was found alive in a collapsed building in Durres.
Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu said more than 600 people had been treated for injuries, including nine hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.
“It is a dramatic moment where we should preserve calm, stay alongside each other to cope with this shock,” Prime Minister Edi Rama said.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the Albanian quake, which struck just before 4 a.m. local time, had an epicenter 19 miles northwest of the capital at a depth of 12 miles. Scores of aftershocks were recorded, including three with preliminary magnitudes of between 5.1 and 5.4.
“Search and rescue work continues at all sites where buildings have collapsed,” Defense Minister Olta Xhacka said in a televised statement. “But these are extremely difficult operations, where you have to work slowly because there is a high risk of further collapse, endangering not only residents, but also those trapped, and the rescuers themselves.”
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 Kosovo, Montenegro, Italy and one of two teams en route from Greece had arrived.
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.