Damages in an abandoned building are seen following an earthquake near Athens, Greece, July 19 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS
Damages in an abandoned building are seen following an earthquake near Athens, Greece, July 19 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS

Athens — A strong, 5.1-magnitude earthquake jolted Athens on Friday, knocking out phone connections, damaging buildings and causing power outages, as panicked residents rushed into the streets.

State TV ERT reported that at least two people were lightly hurt — a pregnant tourist and a young boy — and at least two abandoned buildings in the capital collapsed, while several more suffered damage.

“It was a very intense quake, we were terrified, everyone started coming out [of the building],” a young woman told AFP outside the six-storey cosmetics store where she works.

The epicentre of the shallow quake was north-west of Athens, close to where a 5.9-magnitude quake in September 1999 left 143 people dead in and around the capital.

Friday’s emergency was the second in just over a week for the new conservative administration of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who took office after a July 7 election. In the city centre, the marble cupola cross of a historic 19th century church came loose and shattered onto the street below.

Another Athens church had its cupola cross snapped by the tremor, and a disused cargo conveyor belt at the port of Piraeus collapsed, TV footage showed.

‘Like an explosion’

The culture ministry said the pregnant tourist was visiting the National Archaeological Museum and was struck by another visitor rushing for the exit. She was hospitalised as a precaution, the ministry said. The boy was struck by a falling chimney, ERT said.

News channels broadcast images sent in by viewers that also showed parked cars in central Athens damaged by fallen masonry. Cracks also appeared in some walls in Greece’s 170-year-old parliament building.

“It was more like an explosion,” another woman told ERT on the city’s central Syntagma Square. “We were all very afraid, so we’ll stay here for a couple of hours.” The fire department rescued dozens of people trapped in elevators in the capital, ERT said.

Government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said on TV that there were no reports of serious injuries, while a small number of other buildings had suffered minor damage. Petsas added that phone networks had become “overcharged” by the sheer number of users calling to check up on friends and family.

SKAI TV said there were 20,000 calls per second, more than on New Year’s Eve.

‘Remain calm’

According to the Greek geodynamic institute, the epicentre of the the 5.1-magnitude quake was near the town of Magoula, 23km north-west of Athens, and was followed by several aftershocks. It struck at around 11am GMT at a depth of 13km. 

State engineers are already checking buildings for structural damage, and two helicopters overflew the quake’s epicentre, officials said. 

Worried residents and office staff quickly gathered in outdoor areas but the government denied it had ordered an evacuation alert. “People must remain calm,” said Efthymios Lekkas, head of the state anti-quake protection agency. “There is no reason for concern. The capital’s buildings are built to withstand a much stronger earthquake,” he told ERT.

Major fault lines

The US geological institute said Friday’s quake had a magnitude of 5.3. “For the time being we cannot be sure whether this was the main earthquake,” seismologist Gerassimos Papadopoulos told ERT.

“There have been at least three [smaller] aftershocks already, which is a positive sign,” he said, adding that the quake was felt as far as the Peloponnese peninsula. “People in the capital must remain calm ... they must be psychologically ready for more aftershocks.” 

News media reported electricity outages but said internet connections are  still operating.

In another natural disaster earlier this month, seven people died and at least 23 were injured — most of them tourists — as a fierce storm ripped through beachfronts in Halkidiki, one of Greece’s top tourist areas on July 10.

Greece lies on major fault lines and is regularly hit by earthquakes, but they rarely cause casualties. In July 2017, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake killed two people on the island of Kos in the Aegean sea, causing significant damage.