Hundreds trapped in quake rubble

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The Independent Online
A STRONG earthquake shook Athens yesterday afternoon, killing at least 22 people, including three children. More than 100 people were trapped in the rubble of collapsed factories and apartment blocks.

At 2.56pm local time, buildings began to sway wildly from side to side. They shook for 10 seconds, and, before the tremor was over, hundreds of thousands of people were on their way out on to the streets, sobbing with fear. Women ran from the hairdressers', hair still dripping. Marble and concrete rained from the buildings around them, flattening cars parked on the streets. Shards of glass fell from shattered windows, injuring the people huddled in panic below.

"We heard a big thunder," said Argirif Karaiskos, an Athenian resident. "Everybody was out of the office in zero time."

As many as 70 people were reported trapped in a north Athens detergent factory that collapsed during the quake. Police were trying last night to free workers at the Ricomex factory, in the badly hit suburb of Metamorphosi.

Nearby, the showrooms of the household appliance firm Fourlis were wrecked, trapping as many as 50 workers under the rubble. Sniffer dogs searched the collapsed buildings for the people who, according to police, were alive underneath. Eyewitnesses spoke of hearing voices from the wreckages of concrete and twisted wire.

Amid widespread damage, the historic buildings on and around the Acropolis escaped unscathed. "Everything is fine and dandy," one guard said by telephone from the high plateau that dominates the city. "The Acropolis has survived worse earthquakes than this." The Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, was chairing an emergency cabinet meeting to deal with the situation following the quake.

Parts of the city of five million were left without electricity or phone lines. Authorities issued television appeals to people not to drive cars and to leave phone lines free for emergency services, as survivors rushed to contact their loved ones.

"Everyone panicked, especially because of the recent Turkish quake," said Dimitris Lalas, head of the Athens Seismological Institute. The awful destructive power of the earthquakes that left at least 15,000 dead in neighbouring Turkey was only too fresh in everybody's memory.

This quake was not as monstrous, initially measured at 5.9 on the Richter scale. But it was powerful enough to be felt 180 miles away in Turkey, in the Aegean city of Izmir. And it was destructive enough to bring buildings at the epicentre, 12 miles north of Athens, tumbling to the ground like houses of cards. A boy of five was killed when a building housing a nursery collapsed. At least two people were believed to have died of heart attacks, the rest were crushed as buildings collapsed around them. Through the afternoon and evening terrified crowds stayed in the open as a series of strong aftershocks shook the city.

Like the devastated cities of north-west Turkey, Athens sits in an earthquake- prone region. This was the worst earthquake to hit the Greek capital since 1914.

"The location of the quake was right on top of Athens," said Glen Ford of the British Geological Survey. "It would shake up the area quite a lot but it is a good 100 times smaller than Turkey's."

Athens airport remained open and was operating normally.

In Ankara, Turkey's chief seismologist Ahmet Mete Isikara said the quake was not directly related to last month's disastrous tremor, which was followed by hundreds of aftershocks.

In a bitter irony, Turkey's earthquake brought a new warmth to Greece's relations with its neighbour and long-time rival to an extent that would have been unthinkable only days before. Greece rushed to provide disaster relief to the victims of Turkey's quake, and dropped its refusal to countenance Turkish entry to the European Union. Now Greece has its own dead to to think of.