by Briseida MEMA
Agence France Presse
DURRËS, Albania (AFP) — The death toll from the most powerful earthquake to strike Albania in decades rose to 40 on Thursday after more bodies were pulled from the wreckage overnight in a tragedy that has wiped out whole families.
The 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked the Balkan state while people were sleeping just before 4:00 am (0300 GMT) on Tuesday, razing buildings and trapping victims beneath the debris in towns near the Adriatic coast.
Rescue teams were still shovelling away massive chunks of collapsed apartments and hotels in the coastal city of Durres, where nearly 30 buildings were badly damaged.
Teams from around Europe have flown in to help with the effort, bringing dogs and specialized cameras to hunt for survivors, around 50 of whom have been pulled out alive, mostly on Tuesday.
As the operation stretched into day three, rescuers insisted there was still reason to hope for more survival stories.
“There may be hope for up to eight or ten days” for victims to live after an earthquake, Captain Joel Leroy, a French rescuer, told AFP.
His team of around 50 was searching for two people believed to be buried at the site of seven-story building in Durres, where two or three floors toppled over and sunk into the ground.
Victims may still be in “survival pockets” of air that allow them to breathe under the rubble, he explained.
“That’s why we are working so hard, we believe in it,” he added.
Search efforts ceased Thursday in the other hard-hit town of Thumane, where the defense ministry said there were no more missing after more than 20 bodies were pulled out in recent days.
During the night, emergency workers uncovered the corpses of a mother and son from the Reci family, found in an embrace.
They were crushed by the weight of a collapsed six-storey building in Durres.
The whole family has now perished in the quake, with the bodies of a father and daughter pulled out the day before, according to Ilir Duka, an Albanian rescuer at the scene.
Similar tragedies have befallen other families as the pre-dawn quake shattered their homes.
Loved ones have watched on in horror as rescuers pulled out bodies covered in a grey film of dust, many in their pyjamas.
On Tuesday a woman was heard crying out from inside a wrecked building, where she was stuck inside with a dead child. She was eventually rescued but later died in hospital.
– ‘Hope dies last’ –
Around 50 survivors have been hospitalized and are “in a state of shock and worried about their loved ones”, defense ministry spokeswoman Albana Qehajaj told AFP.
The number of people who may still be buried in the rubble is unknown.
Rescuers, helped by teams from across Europe, have been working in perilous conditions as hundreds of aftershocks rattle buildings, interrupting search efforts.
“It’s a heavy operation, but that’s why we’re here, we’ve been doing this for a long time,” said an Italian rescue worker who didn’t give his name.
“Hope dies last,” he said, adding that survivors have been found up to four days after an earthquake in some instances.
The Italian team was working with dogs to search on a flattened four-storey house that belonged to the Lala family and their relatives.
Two toddlers and their mother were among those who have not yet been found in the debris, their neighbor Fatmira, dressed in black and whispering through tears, told AFP.
– Moved to hotels –
Thousands of people have been displaced, either because their homes were severely damaged or were still unsafe because of the continuing aftershocks.
On Wednesday night authorities in Durres moved those who had been sleeping in tents to hotels and a sports center.
Prime Minister Edi Rama has promised to rehouse the newly homeless by next year.
Illegal construction is rife in Albania, where chaotic development exploded after the fall of communism in 1990.
Many buildings lack proper permits and do not adhere to safety codes.
The earthquake was the deadliest in several decades in Albania, which lies near a tectonic fault line.
© Agence France-Presse