Sat, May 24, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Algerian temblor death toll escalates

SEEKING SURVIVORS While entire families were found among the dead, the race is on to find the living under the mountains of rubble before aftershocks kill more

AP , ALGIERS

Residents of Boumerdes search for survivors after the village was struck by Algeria's worst earthquake in 20 years. The sheer number of shattered buildings in towns near the epicenter was daunting rescuers, as the death toll climbed to 1,092 with 6,782 more left injured.

PHOTO: AFP

Panic-stricken families slept in the streets and parks of Algeria's seaside capital for a second night yesterday, while rescuers led a frenzied hunt for survivors near the epicenter of a devastating earthquake that left more than 1,000 people dead and thousands injured.

Officials said the death toll would only mount as bodies were pulled from buildings leveled by Wednesday's temblor, the country's worst in a generation.

Thousands of people fled their homes, complaining of shoddy construction and the fear that buildings still standing could soon collapse. Police erected roadblocks and stepped up patrols near the capital, Algiers, to prevent looting.

Entire families were among the dead. The 6.8-magnitude quake crumbled apartment houses, knocked down walls and flattened mosques. Weeping survivors wandered stunned amid the destruction. The injured clogged hospitals. Countless bodies were trapped under the wreckage.

Late Thursday -- some 24 hours after the earth shook -- the official APS news agency said at least 1,092 were dead and 6,782 were injured. An Arab-language state-run radio gave a higher toll of 1,225, as the body-count continued. Many thousands more people were homeless.

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

Emergency squads located four people trapped under the debris, two of them young girls who spoke to rescuers, the report said. The four were expected to be pulled out.

The quake hit about 7:45pm Wednesday, with its epicenter east of Algiers. It was the North African nation's deadliest since a pair of temblors killed up to 5,000 in October 1980, according to the US Geological Survey.

In the downtrodden Bab El Oued neighborhood, one of the worst hit in the capital, thousands of people slept in the streets out of fear that aftershocks could bring down unstable apartment buildings. Makeshift tents were set up in parks for women and children.

Closer to the epicenter, in Roubia, 22km east of the capital, the cries of women mingled with the wail of ambulance sirens. An AP reporter saw blocks of buildings in ruins, with unknown numbers of bodies trapped underneath.

Many rescue services were overwhelmed. Women cried the names of their dead or injured children. Bodies were piled at the town morgue, wrapped in blankets or plastic bags. Mechanical diggers lifted away rubble.

Foreign aid groups and governments sprang into action, rushing over rescue workers, doctors and dogs to search for survivors. Food, blankets and medicine for the shocked, injured and homeless were on their way.

In Algiers, electricity was cut in some neighborhoods and some phone lines were downed. The loss of power and scores of aftershocks that rocked the area in the hours after the quake caused panic.

A four-story hotel frequently used by athletes was severely damaged, killing the Romanian head of Algeria's track and field team and the Bulgarian-born coach of the national weightlifting squad.

Shocks were felt into the Mediterranean. The quake triggered 2-meter waves in Spain's Balearic islands, 280km north of Algiers, that damaged or destroyed 150 boats, officials said.

For Algeria, the quake carried risks of political aftershocks, too.

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