Rescue workers picked through dozens of collapsed apartment buildings in the Algerian capital and in outlying cities Thursday, while officials at press time said that the death toll from a Wednesday evening quake had reached more than 700 people.
"Shoddy construction and one of the worst earthquakes ever has led to a tragedy of unknown proportions," says Mohammed Messian, a spokesman at the Algerian Embassy here in Morocco.
Poor enforcement of construction codes was also blamed for the high death toll in the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, where some 18,000 died.
"The earthquake in Algeria is of a size that would be expected to cause significant damage if it were beneath a populated area in the US," says James Dewey, a seismologist at the US Geological Survey in Golden, Colo. "But, typically, damage seems to be more severe in places like Algeria, and it is due to the construction."
As urban populations boom, there's a temptation to cut corners to get buildings up quickly, say experts. And, adds Dr. Dewey, "The traditional building style in many Middle Eastern countries is not earthquake resistant.... This kind of construction is ideal for hot climates without abundant timber, but very poor for earthquakes."
Despite the massive devastation, Mr. Messian said that Algerian rescue workers in the capital were well equipped to deal with the tragedy, the worst in Algeria since 1980, when a tremor measuring 7.7 killed at least 4,500 people. He said that France, which counts Algeria as a former colony, had already sent 120 rescue workers and search dogs to the scene of devastation.
Germany also sent rescue experts, search dogs, and special recovery equipment.
Outside the capital, paramedics and doctors worked to save the injured and also to take blood from donors.
Some of the 57 collapsed apartment blocks shown on TV in Morocco appeared to be no more than piles of crumbled concrete. Dogs sniffed through crevices and workers listened for signs of life. Workers moved ahead with the macabre task of lining up the dead for family members to try to identify. Dozens of small children appeared in the pictures.
Algerian officials reported that at least 5,000 civilians had also been injured in the quake which had a magnitude of 6.7.
"Some residents in Algiers and nearby Rouiba dove out of windows to save themselves, but some also plunged to their deaths," said another official. Similar escape attempts took place in the coastal city of Boumerdes, where a hospital collapsed.
Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia put into words the nation's grief and alarm on television Thursday. "So many buildings have collapsed," he said. "Entire families are underneath. It's a misfortune that has hit the whole of Algeria.''
Mr. Ouyahia pledged that officials would work through the night to try to save as many victims as possible. Relatives in neighboring Morocco, including embassy officials, said they had telephoned loved ones to reassure them and find out who was missing.
In the capital, Algiers, where buildings held up better than in neighboring districts, rescue efforts moved ahead. But in the hardest-hit province, Boumerdes, workers were forced to pile corpses in the open as patients received emergency care on the streets.
Among the collapsed buildings in Algiers was the city's national sports training center used to train Olympic athletes. Four persons were known to have been killed: a Romanian gymnastics coach, an Algerian national swimming coach, an Algerian national weightlifter, and a cook.
Rescue workers weighed priorities as they headed from one collapsed building to the next, not knowing which sites held the most survivors.
One of the hardest-hit towns was Rouiba, a middle-class enclave 20 miles from the capital. Wednesday night's quake began at 7:44 p.m., close to dinnertime, but after the close of the working day.
The earthquake, whose reverberations were felt as far away as Spain, comes amid an ongoing civil conflict in Algeria that has taken more than 100,000 lives and that pits a secular government against Islamic hard-liners bent on implementing sharia, or Islamic law.
• Marie Ewald in Boston contributed to this report, and material from the wire services was used.