TIRANA, Albania — With whole sections of towns reduced to rubble, and rescue workers desperately racing to find survivors the day after a deadly earthquake rocked this small Balkan nation, Albanians were still trying on Wednesday to grasp the scale of the devastation.
At least 31 people were reported killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were left homeless by the 6.4-magnitude quake that struck before dawn on Tuesday. In small villages not yet reached by emergency crews, residents issued desperate pleas for water and other supplies.
Even as aftershocks continued to rattle already-damaged buildings and survivors’ nerves, hundreds of people — police officers, soldiers, firefighters, teams from neighboring countries and local residents — used whatever they could to reach people still trapped under debris.
“We have lost human lives,” Prime Minister Edi Rama told reporters during a visit to a hospital caring for victims in Tirana, the capital city. “We have also saved a lot of lives.”
Local television showed scenes of dramatic rescues overnight and throughout the day, as well as images of those killed.
The coastal city of Durres and the town of Thumane were among the hardest hit by the quake, the strongest to strike Albania in decades. Buildings collapsed or broke apart, trapping people inside, and others were damaged badly enough that people were wary of staying in them.
One story struck a chord with the nation — showing how fine the line was between hope and tragedy, with nothing but random chance separating the two.
The Lala family was asleep in a four-story concrete home in the Marshes neighborhood of Durres when the quake struck, and the building collapsed on itself like a sandwich. Two older women were killed, and so were two children, ages 5 and 10.
But just a few feet away from them, a 17-year-old boy survived. And Italian rescue workers on the scene said they would continue to dig because people have been found alive, against all odds, after much longer periods trapped in earthquake wreckage.
The government sought on Wednesday to reassure the victims whose homes were destroyed or damaged to the point of being unsafe that it will find them accommodation. All of those people would have temporary shelter soon and new homes next year, the prime minister said.
Many Albanians woke up on Wednesday in tents, cars and a soccer stadium, but the authorities said anyone whose home was uninhabitable would soon be placed in a nearby hotel.
“Thousands of families spent last night out under the sky, and we can’t let them pass the winter in tents,” Mr. Rama said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that all of them spend Christmas with a roof.”
The promises were ambitious for a country that is one of the poorest in Europe, and is struggling just to fathom the extent of the destruction. Mr. Rama renewed calls to various countries, including members of the European Union and countries in the Middle East, to provide assistance.
“It’s too big of a disaster and a challenge to deal with for our little country and our limited resources,” he said.
Destructive earthquakes are fairly common in the Balkan region, near where two of the earth’s major tectonic plates, the Eurasian and African, as well as the smaller Aegean and Anatolian plates, collide.
That instability was underscored by a 5.4-magnitude quake that struck Bosnia and Herzegovina just hours after the tremor in Albania, and a 6.0-magnitude quake that rattled the island of Crete, in Greece, on Wednesday. Later on Wednesday, a 5.6-magnitude aftershock in Albania sent people running out of their homes and offices, waiting and hoping that the worst had passed.
The quake on Tuesday, centered near Durres, on the Adriatic coast, came just two months after a temblor in the same area injured dozens and damaged hundreds of homes.
“The first earthquake was terrible, but now we realize how small this was compared to this one,” Mr. Rama said.
The country’s second-largest city, Durres, is home to more than 175,000 people, lies close to where the quake and a swarm of aftershocks were centered, and was hit particularly hard. Residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged spent Tuesday night outside, covered in blankets and sitting on mattresses, as workers from the Red Cross distributed food.
Even those whose houses seemed intact spent the night outside. “We were afraid to go home and that there would be another big earthquake,” said Burim Ajdini, 29. “Tonight I’m not going to sleep at home.”
There was no indication as to how many people might still be buried in the rubble. Firefighters and emergency search teams had pulled 49 survivors from under the debris by late Wednesday afternoon, sometimes in harrowing rescue missions that took hours, and the search continued for people to rescue.
Xhuliano Palku, the manager of the seven-story hotel Vila Palma in Durres, said that for 20 hours on Tuesday, he had participated in a risky operation to rescue a young man who had been sleeping on the third floor when the building collapsed, trapping him under the debris.
Mr. Palku said that the young man, the hotel owner’s son, had been taken to a hospital after being pulled from the rubble.
The three-star Vila Palma was one of the many buildings in the city to fall, and among the four people who had been sleeping there, Mr. Palku said, one had been found dead.
“It was a mess, it was a total mess,” Mr. Palku said of the building, which crushed cars that were parked beneath it.
“When I see the hotel, I think it’s a miracle,” he added. “I didn’t think someone could survive in that catastrophic scene.”
Many buildings that didn’t collapse were still declared uninhabitable, their walls crumbled or cracked, making any return too dangerous.
When the quake struck at 3:50 a.m. local time, Engjellushe Methasani, a teacher who lives in Durres, said she packed some documents and rushed her 12-year-old twins and 16-year-old niece to the family apartment’s doorway, as pieces of walls fell around them.
“It ended very abruptly, like turning a key over in a keyhole,” she said of the main shock.
Ms. Methasani said she couldn’t bring herself to return to her apartment, but photos taken by her brother-in-law showed chunks of walls that had collapsed onto the kitchen counter, 9-foot-long cracks in living room walls, and smaller fissures in the bedrooms.
The Albanian government launched an online donation page to help with relocation and reconstruction for hundreds — possibly thousands — of families.
Various countries, including Italy, Montenegro and Serbia, responded to Albania’s call for assistance by sending rescue teams to Durres and to other cities hours after the quake. The Greek foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, visited the seaside city, as 40 Greek emergency workers and a sniffer dog joined the search and rescue effort, according to news reports.
“We too have been through this,” Mr. Dendias told reporters in Durres on Tuesday, “And we are standing by Albanian people and its government, to offer every help we can.”
Ms. Methasani said she and her family had temporarily taken shelter at a relative’s home on the other side of the country.
“Everyone’s life is shattered because we don’t know if we will be able to return to our normal rhythm soon,” she said.