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(Reuters) — At least 21 people were killed when the most powerful earthquake to strike Albania in decades shook the capital Tirana and the country's west and north on Tuesday, tearing down buildings and burying residents under rubble.
Residents, some carrying babies, fled apartment buildings in Tirana and the western port of Durres after the 6.4-magnitude quake struck shortly before 4 a.m. (0300 GMT).
The Balkan country was jolted by 100 aftershocks after the big tremor, two of them of magnitude 5, testing strained nerves.
In the northern town of Thumane, Marjana Gjoka, 48, was sleeping in her apartment on the fourth floor of a five-story building when the quake shattered the top floors.
“The roof collapsed on our head and I don’t know how we escaped. God helped us,” said Ms. Gjoka, whose 3-year-old niece was among four people in the apartment when the quake struck.
The quake was centered 19 miles west of Tirana, the U.S. Geological Survey said, and was also felt across the Balkans and in the southern Italian region of Puglia.
Hours later, a magnitude-5.4 earthquake hit Bosnia, with an epicenter 45 miles south of Sarajevo, monitors said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Ten bodies were pulled from collapsed buildings in Durres, the main port and tourism destination, the Defence Ministry said, adding 42 had been pulled out alive from under the ruins.
In Thumane, seven people, including a mother and son, were found dead in the rubble of apartment buildings, and a man died in the town of Kurbin after jumping out of a building.
Firefighters, police and civilians were removing the debris from collapsed buildings in Thumane. Most of the buildings that collapsed were built of bricks, a Reuters reporter said.
Rescuers in Thumane used a mechanical digger to claw at collapsed masonry and remove a tangle of metal and cables. Others groped with bare hands to clear rubble.
Two people were pulled from rubble in Thumane four hours after the quake, a Reuters reporter said. Doctors said they were in a bad condition.
“Everything at home kept falling down,” Refik, a Tirana resident, said of the impact on his sixth-floor apartment.
“We were awake because of the previous quakes, but the last one shook us around,” he told Reuters, referring to smaller tremors recorded in the hour before the main quake.
Rescuers told local media one of the dead was an elderly woman who saved her grandson by cradling him with her body.
Defense Minister Olta Xhacka said the quake’s epicenter was in Durres. It was followed by 100 aftershocks. At least 135 people were injured, with 72 hospitalized, she said.
“Durres and Thumane are the areas worst hit. Rescue-and-save work continues in the collapsed buildings there,” she said as troops pulled a victim from a hotel in Durres.
Fellow NATO members Italy, Romania, Turkey, Greece and Croatia were sending specialized rescue equipment. Neighboring Kosovo sent trucks, and Serbia was sending 13 officers.
“Firefighters and army staff are helping residents under the rubble” in Durres and Thumane, the Defence Ministry said.
An unidentified man, with a wound dressing on his right cheek, told News24 TV his daughter and niece were among those trapped in a collapsed apartment building in Durres.
“I talked with my daughter and niece on the phone. They said they are well and are waiting for the rescue. Could not talk to my wife. There are other families, but I could not talk to them,” the man said.
Located along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, between Greece and Macedonia, Albania experiences regular seismic activity.
A 5.6 magnitude quake hit Albania on Sept. 21, damaging around 500 houses. The Defence Ministry had said it was the most powerful quake in Albania in the last 30 years.
The images of damage from Tuesday’s quake suggested it was stronger than one in 1979, which razed a district of a northern town. Neither of those two earlier quakes caused deaths.
The Balkan nation is the poorest country in Europe, with an average income of less than a third of the European Union average, according to Eurostat data.
Flash floods triggered by heavy rains have affected Greece's northwestern region and southern Albania, reports The Associated Press.