THUMANE, Albania (AP) — Rescue crews used excavators to search for survivors trapped in toppled apartment buildings Tuesday after a powerful pre-dawn earthquake in Albania killed at least 14 people and injured more than 600.
The 6.4 magnitude quake was felt across the southern Balkans and was followed by multiple aftershocks. In nearby Bosnia, another temblor with a preliminary magnitude of 5.4 struck southeast of the capital and rattled Sarajevo. 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.
“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 Health Ministry reported about 600 people had been injured, with some in serious condition.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.4 quake, which struck just before 4 a.m. local time, had an epicenter 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana, at a depth of 20 kilometers (12 miles). Scores of aftershocks included three with preliminary magnitudes of between 5.1 and 5.4.
The Defense Ministry said seven bodies were pulled from rubble in the coastal city of Durres, 33 kilometers (20 miles) west of the capital Tirana and five people were found dead in a collapsed apartment building in the northern town of Thumane. One person died after jumping from his home to escape in Kurbin, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital, while another person was killed on a road that collapsed in the northern town of Lezha.
“Durres and Thumane are the two worst hit localities, with great material damage and … tragically lives lost,” Defense Minister Olta Xhacka said in a televised statement. “Search and rescue work continues at all sites where buildings have collapsed.
“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.”
Local television stations showed footage 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 in a separate incident, live TV footage showed people cheering when another child was found alive in a collapsed building in Durres where a body had been found earlier.
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 kind of 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 reported scores of aftershocks — as strong as magnitude 5.5 — and 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.
Ormeni said there had been more than 150 aftershocks, and that this was expected to continue. The aftershocks could pose threats to buildings already damaged by the initial quakes but not yet toppled, and he warned people to stay away from buildings until authorities could confirm they were safe to enter.
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 late morning, Greece, Italy, Kosovo, Turkey, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia were sending rescue crews to Albania.
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 was heading to the quake zone by road from northern Greece. Italy was sending specialized urban search and rescue teams from three Italian regions while Serbia, Romania, Turkey and Montenegro 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.