Albania earthquake: Rescuers still hold out hope to find survivors

AP , Thursday 28 Nov 2019

Death toll from the most powerful earthquake that hit Albania rose to 42 on Thursday, with at least 750 injured and rescue teams were still shoveling away massive chunks of collapsed buildings searching for survivors

Albania quake
Emergency personnel search for survivors in a collapsed building in Durres, after an earthquake shook Albania, November 28, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

Rescue teams desperately sought survivors under rubble in Albania's western town of Durres on Thursday hoping to pull out toddler twins alive, two days after a 6.4 magnitude quake killed at least 42 people and injuring more than 750.

Working incessantly and methodically, the Italian rescues drilled off chunks of concrete to be removed by hand. Afterwards a team of Albanian soldiers shovelled debris away energetically. A mechanised digger was called to move off more.

By Thursday afternoon, search operations were winding down, and focused on one collapsed villa that housed an extended family in the port city of Durres, 33 kilometers (20 miles) west of the capital Tirana, police at the site said.

The bodies of five people had already been recovered from the house from which the sole survivor so far was a 17-year-old boy rescued from beneath the rubble. Rescuers continued searching for three more family members who were missing.

Search operations in the nearby town of Thumane, also badly hit by the quake, ended early Thursday after six more bodies were recovered overnight from a collapsed apartment building.

The Health Ministry said more than 750 people were injured in the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck before dawn Tuesday as people slept, trapping dozens in collapsed apartment buildings.

The main quake has been followed by hundreds of aftershocks, including at least three with magnitudes of above 5.0, complicating rescue efforts.

Another aftershock, with a magnitude of 4.9, rattled the area midday Thursday, sending people fleeing into the streets in panic.

At least one building suffered further damage from the aftershock, while mourners rushed from a building where they had gathered for the start of funeral ceremonies for some of the victims.

In some cases, entire families were killed in the earthquake.

Hundreds of people turned out in Durres for the funeral of the Reci family _ 54-year-old Eduard, his 49-year-old wife Dolora, their son Klaus, 21 and daughter Kristi, 25, _ killed when their apartment building collapsed.

Authorities have warned residents not to return to any buildings that could have been damaged until engineers can check the structures for safety.

While rescue crews sifted through the rubble with diminishing chances of finding anyone else alive, questions mounted as to why some buildings collapsed while others in the same area appeared untouched, with some pointing the blame at shoddy construction practices and corruption in Albania's burgeoning building industry.

"No construction norms have been applied during the post-communist period'' which began in the 1990s, said civil engineer Jorgaq Stasi, 74. "Projects lack seismological and geological studies before application.''

Stasi suggested the government take drastic measures such as halting construction across the country and ensuring adequate space between buildings. He said building codes during communist times restricted constructions to a maximum of five stories, while now 10-15-story buildings were commonplace.

"With such strong quakes, catastrophic ones as they are called of 6-7 magnitude, and the way we have built everywhere, not respecting norms, it is no wonder we have calamities,'' he said.

Construction worker Ilir K., who would not give his full name for fear of retribution and legal issues, said owners frequently ask him to make changes to the original plans for a building's construction.

"I am often asked by the (person paying for the building) to add a room or to take away a cement pillar,'' he said. ``What can I do, with the little payment I get? There is no checking, and the builder easily bribes the supervisor.''

Rescue crews with specialized equipment, sniffer dogs and emergency supplies have flooded into Albania from neighboring countries and other European nations to help in the search efforts and provide for those left homeless.

Romania said Thursday it was sending an extra 52 firefighters and 12 tons of equipment on two military aircraft, while Switzerland was also sending 15 experts.

Many of those left without homes in Thumane spent a second night in tents, unwilling to head to hotels along the coast made available for their accommodation while the search operation continued.

Some 2,100 people had spent Tuesday night in tents, and the government has vowed to provide new homes during 2020 for all those left homeless.

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