Algerian quake kills 1,100, leaves many more homeless

Friday, May 23, 2003

ROUIBA, Algeria -- Rescuers clawed by hand through rubble as stunned and weeping survivors wandered through collapsed buildings Thursday, after Algeria's worst earthquake in two decades killed nearly 1,100 people, injured thousands and left thousands more homeless.

Officials feared the death toll would increase with the search for bodies and survivors, helped by emergency teams from Europe and Asia that rushed to this North African country of 30 million after Wednesday night's disaster.

Entire families were killed in the 6.8-magnitude quake, which was strongest about 60 miles east of the capital Algiers. Injured people overflowed hospitals. Rescuers calling to any survivors under the wreckage occasionally heard voices answer back.

"The building shook like a ship. I sheltered with my daughters in a door-frame. That's why we're still alive," said Fatma Ferhani, 70, of Rouiba, a town 13 miles east of Algiers and near the epicenter.

Entire blocks lay in ruins. Mechanical diggers lifted away rubble as soldiers and civilians used their hands to scoop up small chunks of debris or probe through dirt for victims.

Rescuers pulled a young woman alive from the ruins, according to France-Info radio.

Women cried out the names of their dead or injured children, wails that mingled with the screams of ambulance sirens. Bodies piled at the town morgue were wrapped in blankets or plastic bags.

When the quake hit, "People yelled, 'God is Great!"' said resident Hakim Derradji. "It was horrible, it was like we had been bombed."

Figures rising

Late Thursday, the official APS news agency said at least 1,092 were dead and 6,782 were injured. State-run radio gave a higher toll of 1,225. Thousands more were left homeless.

The earthquake was the most devastating to hit Algeria since a magnitude-7.1 quake struck west of the capital on Oct. 10, 1980, killing more than 4,500 people.

"Unfortunately we have not finished establishing these increasingly tragic figures," Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said. "What is worrying is that there are still many under the rubble."

The quake, which struck at about 7:45 p.m., cut electricity in some Algiers neighborhoods and sparked panic throughout the city. About 10 aftershocks rippled through the area in the following hours, though the city was calm by Thursday afternoon.

The capital of Algiers, however, was mostly spared from the devastation further east. Several apartment balconies and sleeping hideaways in attics in the capital collapsed, however.

And a building used by athletes was severely damaged, killing the head of Algeria's track and field team and the coach of the national weightlifting squad.

Algiers residents thronged the streets, preferring to be outdoors for fear of another temblor. Some schools were opened to take in people whose homes were unsafe.

"It was a great shock," said Mohcine Douali, who lives in central Algiers. "I ran out to the street with my wife and my two daughters, and no one has been able to sleep because of the aftershocks."

Numerous towns were devastated throughout the Boumerdes region, where the epicenter was located. Residents swarmed to hospitals seeking treatment for injuries or news of loved ones. Dozens of bodies were laid out, their families weeping over them.

In Dergane, eight members of the same family -- including a month-old baby -- were killed as they sought shelter in their cellar.

The quake triggered 7-foot waves that damaged 150 boats off Spain's Balearic islands, 175 miles north of Algiers, officials said. Underwater telephone cables were damaged, disrupting international communications, France Telecom said.

Algeria could face political aftershocks as well. With elections due next year, support for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika could slide if efforts to help quake survivors flag. Bouteflika canceled plans to join a summit of world leaders in France next week, APS reported.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors quakes around the world, said the temblor had a preliminary magnitude of 6.8. Lucy Jones, a scientist at the U.S. survey office in Pasadena, Calif., said the quake likely occurred on a fault along the boundary between the African and Eurasian plates.

People in Algiers felt the quake in waves, with vibrations that lasted 40-50 seconds, getting stronger, weaker, then stronger again.

In Washington, President Bush extended condolences on "behalf of the American people."

"Our prayers are for the victims, their families, and the entire Algerian nation," he said. "The United States stands ready to help."

Interior Minister Nouredine Yazid Zerhouni traveled to the worst-hit areas. A call for blood donors was issued, and medical personnel were asked to pitch in.

In Paris, Algerians living in France were desperate for news of their families. Dozens crowded around a counter at the city's Orly airport, hoping to buy plane tickets home.

"The whole city center has been razed to the ground," said M'Hamed Harkane, 34, a nurse from Thenia. "I have my father, my mother and my brother there. I don't know if they're dead -- they probably are."

France and Germany sent rescue teams, some with sniffer dogs. The European Union said it was coordinating disaster relief efforts with France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Greece -- all of which had sent help or were preparing to. Japan also sent an 18-member rescue team and planned to send 43 more rescue workers and two rescue dogs Friday. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies were sending a team.

The earthquake was the latest tragedy to visit this North African nation where an Islamic insurgency that has left some 120,000 people dead has raged for more than a decade.

In November 2001, more than 700 people were killed in flooding around the capital.

"A curse is striking our country," lamented Said Chaouchi, a 60-year-old Rouiba baker. "After 10 years of terrorism, we're now living through a string of natural disasters."

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