Stopping at intervals to listen for sounds of survivors, local and international rescue crews searched through the rubble of collapsed buildings Wednesday, as hopes of finding people alive waned a day after a deadly earthquake in Albania killed at least 30 and injured more than 650.
Those desperate for news included police officer Ajet Peci, who managed to emerge from the ruins of an apartment block that collapsed in the port city of Durres, killing his two adult daughters. His wife was still missing.
“How can I live?” Peci said, sobbing as he was consoled by neighbours, a bandage under his right eye and on a finger of his left hand. “I don’t know what I did to make it out. I wish I had stayed with them.”
Neighbours said only about four or five families were living in the five-story building at the time of the quake, as the owners of some of the apartments had emigrated.
Overnight, authorities said four more people had been confirmed dead, and five more deaths were reported later Wednesday. Those killed included at least three children, Defence Minister Olta Xhacka said.
Hundreds of aftershocks, some of them strong, followed the magnitude-6.4 quake that struck the country’s coastal cities before dawn on Tuesday. Crews briefly suspended rescue operations after an aftershock with a preliminary magnitude of 5.3 struck Wednesday afternoon.
In Durres, Albania’s second largest city on the Adriatic Sea, residents slept in tents and cars and at a soccer stadium. Others spent the night on open ground, huddling around fires to stay warm. The Defence Ministry said about 2,100 people were in tents, although many were being moved to local hotels, which had offered 1,500 beds so far.
Prime Minister Edi Rama said “thousands of families” have suffered damage to their homes.
“Our possibilities are very limited, and our country does not have a budget to cope with such a tragic situation,” he said in the town of Thumane, one of the worst-hit areas.
Previously, the government had vowed that all those who had lost homes would have new ones by the end of 2020.
Rescue efforts centred around Durres and Thumane, including a four-story villa in Durres that housed an extended family. Locals said they believed six people might still be in the collapsed house.
Forty-five people were pulled out alive on Tuesday, including at least two children whose rescues were captured on television. But as Wednesday wore on, hopes of finding more people alive dimmed.
In one dramatic and ultimately unsuccessful attempt in Thumane on Tuesday, crews from Albania and neighbouring Kosovo worked for 16 hours to free a man trapped under a collapsed apartment building. The man, identified by local media as Klement Cupi, lived abroad and had arrived only three days earlier to visit family and friends. He was pinned under a concrete pillar in a first-floor apartment of a five-story building where he was staying with his parents and brother.
Crews managed to reach the badly injured Cupi and protect his head with a helmet, but he cried out in pain ever time the pillar pinning him down shifted slightly. Relatives and rescuers tried to comfort him as best they could.
Rescuers used everything at their disposal — hydraulic equipment, pneumatic drills, special mats that inflate to lift rubble — but could not shift the heavy concrete without risking further injury. Despite their efforts, Cupi died before they could extract him from the rubble, local media reported.
His parents also perished in the quake, local media reported. His brother was rescued and was being treated in a hospital in Tirana.
Flags were flying at half-staff on public buildings around the country Wednesday as Albania observed a national day of mourning.
Prime Minister Rama thanked neighbour Greece and other countries offering support.
“We feel good to not be alone and I’m very grateful to all our friends,” Rama said late Tuesday, visiting Durres with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias.
Rescue teams and other disaster experts arrived from more than a dozen countries including Italy, Greece, Romania, Turkey, Serbia and Kosovo, while many European Union countries and the United States offered support. Germany was sending 800 beds, as well as tents and other material to help survivors.
In Thumane, Kristina Margjini also spent the night outdoors.
“The quake left us without shelter. Everything we have is destroyed: The apartment, windows, everything, and we cannot live there anymore,” she said.
The quake in Albania was followed by a smaller one in nearby southern Bosnia Tuesday and a 6.1 magnitude temblor Wednesday off the coast of the island of Crete in Greece. No significant damage or injuries were reported from either the Bosnian or the Greek quake.