Emergency personnel work near a damaged building in Thumane, following Tuesday's powerful earthquake that shook Albania, November 27 2019. Picture: REUTERS/FLORION GOGA
Emergency personnel work near a damaged building in Thumane, following Tuesday's powerful earthquake that shook Albania, November 27 2019. Picture: REUTERS/FLORION GOGA

Tirana/Durrës — 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 3am GMT.

The Balkan country was jolted by 250 aftershocks after the main tremor, defence minister Olta Xhaçka said, two of them of magnitude 5, testing strained nerves.

She told reporters that the quake’s epicentre was in Durrës, Albania’s main port and a tourist spot, saying: “About 600 residents were injured and received treatment.”

In the northern town of Thumanë, Marjana Gjoka 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 centred 30km west of Tirana, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said, and was also felt across the Balkans and in the southern Italian region of Puglia, across the Adriatic Sea from Albania.

Hours later, a magnitude 5.4 earthquake rattled Bosnia, with an epicentre 75km south of the capital Sarajevo, monitors said. There were no reports of injuries.

In Durrës, 13 bodies were pulled from collapsed buildings and 45 people were rescued from the wreckage there and in Thumane. After a 14-hour ordeal, a woman was extracted alive from the ruins of a six-storey building, two hours after police removed 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 Durrës soccer stadium, where the army had pitched tents. “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 September 21, damaging about 500 houses. The defence ministry said then it was the most powerful quake in Albania for the past 30 years.

The images of damage from Tuesday’s quake suggested it was stronger than one in 1979 that razed a district of a northern town. Neither of those two earlier quakes caused deaths.

Albania is the poorest country in Europe, with per capita income a quarter of the EU average, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

‘Everything kept falling’

In Thumane, seven people, including a mother and son, were found dead in the rubble of two 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.

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.

“Durrës and Thumane are the areas worst hit. Rescue and save work continues in the collapsed buildings there,” Xhaçka, the defence minister said, as troops extricated a victim from a stricken hotel in Durrës.

Italy, France, Romania, Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia sent 200 specialised troops, tools and teams of tracker dogs to help the relief effort, Xhaçka said.

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 Durrës. “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.”