At least six people were killed, dozens were wounded and several towns in central Croatia were left in ruins after a powerful 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey and Croatian officials.
The full extent of casualties was not known and as daylight faded, emergency crews, assisted by the military, searched the wreckage for survivors.
The quake, which hit just after noon local time about 30 miles from the capital, Zagreb, could be felt across the Balkans and as far away as Hungary. It followed a smaller earthquake a day earlier and another in March, rattling residents in the earthquake-prone region.
The epicenter of the quake was near the towns of Petrinja and Sisak, which is home to the region’s largest hospital, rendered largely unusable because of damage. Although people injured in the quake were still being taken to the facility to be triaged, including two in critical condition, the government said it would evacuate the patients there. That effort would also include moving 40 coronavirus patients to other facilities.
“We have nowhere to come to work tomorrow — only the gynecology building remains, where we are currently taking care of the most seriously ill,” the director of the hospital, Tomislav Dujmenovic, told state TV. “We have nowhere to go tomorrow.”
At the moment the earthquake struck, he said, a woman was in labor and the procedure was moved outside. Both the mother and child are in good health.
The destruction caused by the earthquake was widespread across the city.
“Half the city’s capitol building collapsed — the city is in a very bad state,” the mayor of Sisak, Kristina Ikic Banicek, told state television. “We’re helping people as much as we can.” One person was reported to have been killed in the city.
In Petrinja, a town of around 25,000 people that still bears the scars from a major battle during the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the mayor said he walked by the body of a 12-year-old girl on the street.
“This is a catastrophe,” said the mayor, Darinko Dumbovic. “My city is completely destroyed,” he said in an emotional telephone interview from the scene that was broadcast on Croatian state television.
“We need firefighters, we don’t know what’s under the surfaces, a roof fell on a car, we need help.”
He added: “Mothers are crying for their children.”
In the nearby village of Glina, local officials said four people who died had been pulled from the rubble.
Images from Petrinja on social media and local television stations showed streets strewn with rubble, buildings with roofs caved in and rescue crews rushing to search for people who may have been trapped.
In the moments after the earth stopped shaking, orange dust filled the air as car alarms sounded, church bells clanged and shouts for survivors echoed through streets.
In one dramatic rescue, a man and a child were pulled from a car buried under debris. The mayor told local reporters that he did not know the condition of the two people but that they appeared to be alive.
“I also heard that the kindergarten collapsed,” Mr. Dumbovic said, adding: “But fortunately there were no children” in the building at the time.
The Red Cross in Croatia said it was a “very serious” situation.
The earthquake on Tuesday came after a 5.2-magnitude tremor hit the area the day before, damaging buildings and rattling nerves in a region with a history of seismic activity.
And it came only hours after Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and President Zoran Milanovic toured the center of Petrinja to survey damage from the first quake.
They returned on Tuesday to devastation.
“This 2020 is bringing us tragedy after tragedy,” Mr. Plenkovic said, adding that there were many small villages around the two larger towns that had also suffered damage.
While the first tremor on Monday caused no injuries, many buildings had been damaged, putting them in a precarious condition when the second quake struck.
The government lifted travel restrictions put in place to contain the coronavirus so that assistance could arrive more quickly and to allow those whose homes were destroyed to travel to relatives.
In neighboring Slovenia, the state news agency said the country’s sole nuclear power plant, about 60 miles from the epicenter, was shut down as a precaution.
The Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary said in a statement that it had not shut down production although the earthquake had been felt there.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said she had asked Janez Lenarcic, the European commissioner for crisis management, to stand ready to travel to Croatia to assist.
The region is prone to earthquakes, and experts have warned that the Balkan nations in southeastern Europe have failed to address the risks posed by aging buildings.
While many towns and villages trace their roots back hundreds of years, a building boom in the 1990s, during the transition to capitalism from communism, resulted in structures that were constructed without regard for safety standards.
Millions of people live in buildings that are unlikely to survive a major earthquake, experts say.
Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed reporting.