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Death Toll Rises in Quake-Ravaged Albania


Emergency personnel carry a body during a search for survivors in a collapsed building in Durres, after an earthquake shook Albania, Nov. 28, 2019.

The death toll in earthquake-ravaged Albania rose to at least 47 on Thursday, after nine bodies were pulled from the rubble and hope faded for finding additional survivors from Tuesday's temblor, the strongest to hit the country in more than three decades.

Authorities called off search and rescue operations in Thumane, after recovering the bodies of the last people who had been reported missing. It was the worst-hit town, with 23 dead. Seven of the 23 belonged to a single family of nine.

"God let us keep two [members of the family] but took seven from us," survivor Sul Cara told VOA. "Now we are focused on paying our respects to the dead, as honor and tradition demands of us. We will try our best to show strength as we send off seven loved ones to burial. This is a heavy tragedy to bear, but at the same time we have found strength in the outpouring of support, not just from this town but from the whole country."

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Search operations continue in other locations, but rescuers are increasingly pessimistic survivors will be found.

The situation remains precarious for the local population in hard-hit areas. Before midday Thursday, another earthquake of 5.0 magnitude was registered near Thumane. Authorities warn that several buildings have considerable damage and may no longer be safe.

The quake caused panic in Durres, the second largest city in the country. Within minutes, cars were streaming out of the city, while alarmed patients at the city's hospital struggled to get out of the building that bears visible cracks in the walls.

Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama called an emergency cabinet meeting Thursday morning, demanding a list of survivors sheltered in hotels as well as assessments of damage caused by the earthquake.

]Thursday marked Albania's 107th independence anniversary. President Ilir Meta called on his countrymen to use the moment "to help heal the wounds caused by the earthquake."

The international community has rallied in Albania's support. Rescue teams and specialized crews have been dispatched from neighboring Kosovo, as well as Italy and Greece.

The European Commission said on Twitter that it stands by Albania "at this difficult time following the earthquakes."

"We have mobilized immediate support to help local authorities, and rescue teams from Italy, Greece and Romania are already on their way," an EU statement on Twitter said.

Turkish rescuers search at a collapsed building in Durres, western Albania, Nov. 28, 2019.
Turkish rescuers search at a collapsed building in Durres, western Albania, Nov. 28, 2019.

Help also arrived from France, Turkey, Serbia and the United States.

The U.S. Embassy in Tirana also sent a statement of condolence.

"The United States stands with our friends in Albania, just as Americans and Albanians have always stood by each other during difficult times. We will continue to closely monitor the situation and stand ready to offer our support," the embassy said.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis said he was praying for Albania.

"I would like to send a greeting and express my closeness to the dear Albanian people, who have suffered so much these days," the pope said. "Albania was the first country in Europe that I wanted to visit. I am close to the victims, I pray for the dead, for the wounded, for the families, may God bless them, the people that I love."

A woman mourns after rescuers found the body of a relative after an earthquake in Thumane, western Albania, Nov. 27, 2019.
A woman mourns after rescuers found the body of a relative after an earthquake in Thumane, western Albania, Nov. 27, 2019.

The Albanian diaspora also was rallying to help, holding several fundraisers to send money to one of the poorest countries in Europe.

"I am so heartbroken for my people back home, for those who have lost lives and loved ones," New York City Councilmember Mark Gjonaj, an Albanian American, told VOA.

Marko Kepi, of the Albanian-American organization Albanian Roots, organized a fundraiser that raised close to $1 million in less than a day."

"This fundraiser is simply to help those who have lost everything, they lost their homes and to help those families who lost their loved ones, do whatever we can so they can have some sort of peaceful mind, that they are not alone, they have support and they are not going to be left out in the street," he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake Tuesday was a magnitude 6.4 with an epicenter 30 kilometers northwest of the capital, Tirana. Three hours after the initial quake, a magnitude 5 aftershock struck in the Adriatic Sea.