Published:  02:43 AM, 30 November 2019

A race to save lives in Albania

A race to save lives in Albania Emergency personnel carry a body during a search for survivors in a collapsed building in Durres, after an earthquake shook Albania on Thursday. -Reuters

With each piece of rubble pulled off the twisted pile of steel and concrete that used to be a four-story home, Luca Martino and his rescue dog, Foglia, were called into action.

"If there is room for air to come to the outside, the dog can smell it," Martino, a rescue worker from Italy, said during a break Thursday. "If someone is alive, Foglia will bark." On this day, the dog had not barked. It was slow, arduous work, repeated at numerous sites in Albania in the aftermath of a 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck Tuesday, leaving at least 47 people dead.

And in this Adriatic coast city, where many buildings were levelled and many more were dangerously damaged, the rescuers knew that hopes were fading. "There is still time," Martino said. Nine members of the Lala family had been in the home when it collapsed. Four had died, one had already been rescued, but four remained beneath the rubble.

But as precious minutes ticked by, the work came to a sudden halt. The earth was shaking again. The site needed to be cleared. Across the city, people poured out of their homes and businesses - again.

Officially, this time it was a 5.1-magnitude quake, but in a city where nerves are already frayed and poorly constructed buildings pose a threat even when the earth is not moving, the number hardly mattered. The helpless feeling was the same. Later that day, the rescuers working with Martino pulled one more body out of the wreckage, leaving three still missing beneath the rubble.

At the city's main hospital, engineers urgently looked over structural blueprints and rushed visitors out of the administration headquarters, saying it was not safe. When the earth shook around noon, people in the emergency room briefly fled to wait out the shaking.

Jadranka Mihaljevic, head of engineering at the seismology department of Montenegro's Institute for Hydrometeorology and Seismology, said the magnitude of the aftershocks was not unexpected."This is a big earthquake, and it's not surprising, at least not in our region," she said.

Driving through the city, which was founded in the seventh century BC but where many buildings were hastily thrown up during the country's wild and often lawless transition to democracy in the 1990s, felt like touring an urban battlefield.

The buildings bore deep cracks and homes were flattened. On corner after corner, red-and-white tape marked a place that was deemed unsafe to walk or stay.

The official death toll climbed as the authorities slowly shifted from rescue operations to recovery efforts. Officials said 680 people had sought medical attention, including 35 who remained hospitalized, and one who was airlifted to Italy.

Several thousand people whose homes were destroyed were being sheltered in hotels and other locations. But tens of thousands more were living in places that might be structurally unsound.

"Nothing is safe," said Haki Kaja, 73, who had been standing a block from where a newer six-story apartment complex had collapsed, killing several people. "What we fear the most are these buildings that were constructed in the 1990s without proper engineers."

Beyond immediate survival, the government is focused on finding lodging for people left homeless, but Endri Fuga, a spokesman for Prime Minister Edi Rama, said he understood the concerns of those who worried about the safety of their buildings.

"This is something we have never dealt with before," he said, adding that when the last major quake hit in 1979, there was only a fraction of the current development.

The government has too few people to inspect all the damaged buildings, he said, and is asking for international help.
"And what we are getting is tremor after tremor, making it even more difficult," he said.In one of Europe's poorest countries, where corruption and crime remain endemic, the earthquake comes at a politically volatile moment.

Since February, protesters have taken to the streets in often violent demonstrations, calling for the resignation of Rama's government. In May, several thousand demonstrators converged on the main government building in Tirana, the capital, and hurled gasoline bombs and fireworks. Police responded with tear gas.

At the same time, the country's future has been clouded by the recent decision by the European Union to delay any discussion on the country's admission to the bloc of nations.

Rama has warned that the delay threatened to upend stability in the Balkans, especially if Albanian nationalists see it as a moment to push for the country to form a union with Kosovo, whose 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia is not recognized by Serbia.

But for the moment, the earthquake seems to have brought unity to a region better known for fragmentation. Serbia and Greece, two countries with historic political differences with Albania, were among the first to send rescue crews, followed quickly by other neighboring nations.

Those teams, joined with Albanian emergency workers who were going on three days of working with little rest, rescued 48 people trapped in the debris, most of them in the first 24 hours.Their heroic efforts, however, did not change the suffering of those who lost everything.

The scene at Tirana's main trauma hospital was one of agony. Relatives pleaded for their loved ones to be airlifted out of the country for treatment, even as some of those recovering from injuries remained unaware of the extent of their loss.

"My sister thinks her daughter and her husband are in the hospital," said Drita Cakoni. "She is asking to see her daughter. But her daughter is dead. So is her husband. She has lost everything."Because her sister's heart is weak, the doctors asked Cakoni not to say anything for at least a few weeks.

On the radio, there were appeals from frightened citizens who feared that their homes could collapse. One elderly woman described how her family had been spending their nights in their car, afraid that the complex in the small town of Golem, in Kavaja municipality, would not stand much longer. "There have been no inspections," she told a broadcaster.

Along with very real concerns and the ongoing danger brought by aftershocks, the government was also contending with false stories stirring fear on social media. Rama issued a warning to those spreading lies on social media."I will be forced to intervene to close them down up until the end of this emergency situation if they continue to publish fake news causing panic," he said.

After an earlier earthquake in September, a Facebook page posted a false warning that another quake was imminent, sending tens of thousands of people in the capital into a frenzy, causing them to leave their homes and drive to open spaces.

People hardly needed fake news to be put on edge. The past three days have done the job.Most people here are familiar with a slogan from Communist times: "The earthquakes rocked the mountains but not the Albanian heart."

Thursday marked the anniversary of Albania's independence from Ottoman rule in 1912, but the flags strung up on the streets of Durres for the celebration were lowered to half-staff and the day was declared one of mourning.But even as hopes of finding more survivors dimmed, at least one family got some good news along with the bad.

Altin Celshima, 40, escaped his home with his family, but when he got to a hotel where his nephew and his nephew's grandparents were staying, he found the seven-story building had collapsed. "It was terrible, like a living hell," he said.

The grandparents were located within six hours - the grandmother still alive, the grandfather struck dead by a falling beam. But it wasn't until some panicked 20 hours after the quake, with help from Albanian and Greek rescuers, that the nephew was finally pulled out, alive. "It was a miracle he survived," Celshima said.


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