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Death Toll Mounts in Algerian Earthquake

BY Admin  May 22, 2003 at 3:30 PM EST

The 6.7-magnitude quake rocked areas east of the capital of Algiers, toppling apartment houses, uprooting trees and devastating residential areas. The temblor, which struck at 7:44 local time (2:44pm EDT) Wednesday, was followed by at least 10 aftershocks in the ensuing hours.

Despite the grim numbers, Algeria’s leaders warned the final death toll could climb much higher.

“Unfortunately we have not finished establishing these increasingly tragic figures,” Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said. “What is worrying is that there are still many under the rubble.”

Throughout the night, teams of Algerian rescuers, aided by two groups from France, scoured collapsed buildings in the hardest hit towns. The search for survivors continued into Thursday as Algerian state radio quoted the country’s interior minister as saying the toll stood at 1,092 dead and 6,782 injured some 24 hours after the quake.

International rescue teams were also reportedly rushing to the scene to aid in the effort. Other groups, like the International Red Crescent, said they plan to dispatch humanitarian disaster relief teams to Algeria later Thursday.

“There are fears that the earthquake has damaged health facilities and the water and sanitation infrastructure,” the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent said in a press release Thursday.

French television showed footage from northern Algeria, where rescue workers dug furiously through the rubble of collapsed apartment buildings and houses.

“I saw the earth tremble. I saw people jump from the window of the hotel,” Icham Mouiss, told French television station LCI.

Reuters reports from the field indicated some of the worst devastation was in the in the town of Reghaia, east of Algiers, where more than 350 people were feared to have died in an apartment collapse.

In Washington, President Bush offered his condolences to the Algerian people.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the hundreds of deaths, the many injuries, and the major damage in towns east of Algiers and in the capital city,” Mr. Bush said in a statement. “Our prayers are for the victims, their families, and the entire Algerian nation. The United States stands ready to help.”

The quake was the worst to hit Algeria since a pair of temblors killed 2,500 people west of Algiers in October 1980.

According to the U.S. Geological Service, the earthquake was centered 45 miles east of Algiers, near the town of Thenia. The USGS also preliminarily reported that the epicenter of the temblor was 10 kilometers under the surface of the earth, where two large land masses collide.

“The earthquake occurred in the boundary region between the Eurasian plate and the African plate,” the USGS said on its Web site. “Along this section of the plate boundary, the African plate is moving northwestward against the Eurasian plate with a velocity of about 6 mm per year.”