Rouiba (Algeria), May 22 (Reuters): Rescue workers scrabbled at mounds of rubble today to find survivors of an earthquake in the Algerian capital and nearby towns that killed almost 800 people and injured nearly 6,000.
Measuring 6.7 on the open-ended Richter scale, the quake sent terrified residents running into the streets yesterday evening in Algiers and towns to the east, along the populous Mediterranean coastal strip. The tremor, felt as far away as Spain, was Algeria’s worst in more than 20 years.
“It’s an apocalyptic sight,” said a radio reporter in Reghaia, east of Algiers. “One building with 10 floors and 100 apartments has collapsed. Just this morning 30 bodies have been found... families have lost everything down to their last shirt.”
Hospitals in the capital and hardest-hit cities were finding it almost impossible to cope, medical staff said. In the worst affected province, Boumerdes, bodies were piled up outside hospitals and patients were treated in the open air.
State media said there were at least 770 dead and over 5,600 injured. In Algiers at least 57 buildings were destroyed, among them the Training Centre for the National Sporting Elite. One of the most stricken places was Rouiba, a relatively prosperous city some 30 km from the eastern edge of Algiers, where one building after another was reduced to rubble.
“I have never seen such a disaster in my life. Everything has collapsed,” said Yazid Khelfaoui, whose mother was killed. The rubble of his apartment block was all around him.
The earth shook at 1844 GMT, when many families were gathered at home for dinner.
Algerian television showed dozens of bodies lined up under sheets and blankets, some clearly children.“There were so many wounded, we couldn’t count them,” one harassed doctor said.
In Boumerdes city on the coast, media spoke of people jumping from windows. State television said a small hospital had collapsed there. In the town of Meftah, a 66-year-old woman died jumping from a balcony, the official APS news agency said.
“It’s a tragic moment,” Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia told state radio. “It’s a misfortune that hits the whole of Algeria.”
He said security forces were on alert to stop looting in a country riven by a decade of violence by Islamist rebels. The strife has cost more than 100,000 lives and burdened an economy potentially wealthy from natural gas and oil exports. State media broke into broadcasts to urge people to go outdoors and stay away from buildings.
Some 200 aftershocks hit northern Algeria in the first two hours after the quake and authorities said more would follow.
At Algiers’ principal Mustapha hospital, families gathered to inquire about loved ones. Police forced back a growing crowd. “I want to see my brother. I want to know if he is dead or still alive. Please let me inside,” said Ahmed, 40, who had come to Algiers from Rouiba. He wept as he spoke.
Algerian television showed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, visibly moved, holding the hands of a middle-aged woman in hospital whose face and lips were shaking uncontrollably.
At the national sports centre, a three-storey building in its own grounds, at least four people died — a Romanian gymnastics coach, a national swimming coach, a weightlifter and a cook.
Road builders used their equipment to hunt for survivors. “We left our job to come and help. We’re human after all,” said one, Sid Alki. France despatched 120 rescuers with sniffer dogs and equipment to its former colony. Germany sent 22 technicians, also with dogs and high-tech sound and imaging equipment.
Most of Algeria’s 32 million people live in the north, away from the Sahara desert. Algiers, on the coast, is home to at least 2.6 million.
The US Geological Survey said the epicentre had been 70 km east of Algiers.
It said the quake was the biggest to hit Algeria since 1980, when a tremor measuring 7.7 killed at least 4,500 people.
In 1994, about 150,000 were made homeless by an earthquake in northwestern Algeria that killed over 170.
Officials and oil sources said oil facilities were unaffected by the quake, but there were reports of disruption to international communications as far as away as Jordan. (Additional reporting by Paul de Bendern in Algiers)