Rescuers in Albania dug through the rubble of collapsed buildings in search of survivors Tuesday, after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck the Balkan nation, killing at least 21 people and injuring 650.
Using everything from earth-moving equipment to their bare hands, local residents and emergency crews in cities across the country had pulled 45 people alive from under mounds of debris by the evening, the government said. Thirty people were hospitalized.
The deadly quake was the strongest to hit Albania in decades, in a region known for its devastating temblors, and came just two months after the country was struck by another strong quake that damaged hundred of homes. Across the country, buildings crumbled, fallen facades left structures ripped open to the elements, and many others had ominous cracks snaking across their walls.
In Durres, a hard-hit coastal city, the seven-story Vila Palma hotel collapsed, crushing cars parked underneath, but there was no immediate word on casualties. Many buildings on the outskirts of the city were also destroyed, raining concrete and bricks onto streets, vehicles and gardens.
“What we are seeing now is a very strong, very powerful sequence of earthquakes,” said Jadranka Mihaljevic, head of engineering in the seismology department of the Institute for Hydrometeorology and Seismology in neighboring Montenegro, where she said the earthquake was felt across the country.
The earthquake struck at 3:54 a.m. near the Adriatic coast, about 19 miles west of Tirana, home to nearly 900,000 people.
A resident of Tirana, George-llias Belidis, was sleeping in his apartment when a powerful, seemingly interminable tremor jolted him awake, and he said he thought his end had come.
“Everything was moving in an unbelievable rhythm, I could hear the walls cracking, dishes and glass breaking,” Belidis, a 24-year-old Greek citizen, said by phone a few hours after experienced the deadly quake “in all its rage.”
Videos and pictures shared on social media showed chaotic scenes of residents rummaging through the rubble or trying to extricate people trapped under collapsed buildings. In one video, a group of people in Durres struggled in darkness to extract a young boy who was trapped in the wreckage crying out in pain.
In Elbasan, a town about 35 miles from Durres, Olsi Shehi, a 39-year-old cook, said a four-story house had fallen, trapping people inside.
“I could hear six people screaming to get them out,” he said.
Albania’s president, Ilir Meta, described the situation “dramatic” as he visited Thumane, the town closest to the epicenter, where several people died. “We hope to overcome it with the least loss,” he wrote in a post on Twitter that included pictures of him talking with local people and an army officer.
In a statement, Meta vowed that rescuers would “save every human life under the rubble of buildings” and help the injured. It was unclear how many people were still trapped, but locals worried the death toll could rise considerably.
As many as 1.2 million people may have faced “strong” and “very strong” shaking, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Seismologists said that the quake and its aftershocks were felt in neighboring Montenegro, in some parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in southern Italy. Hours later, a 5.4-magnitude quake struck southern Bosnia and Herzegovina; there were no immediate reports of injuries or fatalities.
On Sept. 21, a 5.6-magnitude quake in Albania injured dozens of people and damaged hundreds of homes in the same area hit Tuesday. Officials and seismologists said that quake was the strongest to strike the country in 30 years.
Mihaljevic said the stability of the buildings in Albania might have been greatly compromised by the previous earthquake and that their fragile state could lead to increased fatalities.
As Albanian authorities requested international help, Montenegro and Serbia sent support and rescue teams, according to Prime Minister Edi Rama, who added that various leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, were preparing to help.
Emergency teams from Kosovo, Romania, Italy and Greece joined the effort, and European Union officials said they had reached out to Albania’s government to offer assistance.
Countries in the Balkans and in southern Europe have a long history of destructive earthquakes. In 1999, a 7.6-magnitude quake killed 17,000 people in Turkey; and in 2016, more than 241 people died in a 6.2-magnitude quake in central Italy, seven years after the deadly Abruzzo earthquake that left more than 300 people dead.
A series of quakes also ravaged the region in the late 1970s, killing more than 1,500 people in Romania in 1977, dozens in Greece in 1978 and hundreds in 1979 in what was then Yugoslavia.
“The deadly 1977-1979 series was followed by a quiet period where new seismic energy was accumulating,” Mihaljevic said. “But after 40 years of relatively calm seismicity, strong quakes seem to be back.”
Many residents rushed out of their houses in Tirana or Durres in the early hours of Tuesday, only to face numerous aftershocks in the open air.
Belidis, the 24-year-old Tirana resident, said he didn’t know where he would live, describing his apartment as “uninhabitable.”
Even in houses and buildings that were still standing, the quake left walls bulging, and their inhabitants, most of whom remained outside even after the earthquake ended, terrified.
“Some were on the street, others in their cars,” said Shehi, in Durres. “You look around and you think, ‘We’re lucky we’re alive.’ ”