Irish men describe double hit of Covid-19 and earthquake suffered by Croatia: 'It was like the end of days'

Irish men describe double hit of Covid-19 and earthquake suffered by Croatia: 'It was like the end of days'
A car is crushed by falling debris after an earthquake in Zagreb, Croatia, Sunday, March 22, 2020. A strong earthquake shook Croatia and its capital on Sunday, causing widespread damage and panic. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

“It was like the end of days.

"Everyone was wearing face masks, kids wrapped in blankets, dogs in carrier bags,” Irishman Tom O’Hara said after the worst earthquake to hit Zagreb, Croatia in 140 years did so as the country was in coronavirus lockdown.

Tumbling masonry smashed into parked cars and blocked roads, chimneys fell to earth in front of doorways and roofs collapsed from historic buildings after the 5.5 magnitude earthquake hit the Croatian capital on Sunday morning. 

Patients were evacuated from hospitals and newborn babies were wheeled out of maternity wards in incubators into the snow.

One 15-year-old girl died on Monday after sustaining injuries in the earthquake and at least 26 more people were injured.

The country has continued to experience aftershocks since - all while battling the ever-encroaching Covid-19 virus. 

Irishman Tom O'Hara was in Zagreb during the earthquake on Sunday morning
Irishman Tom O'Hara was in Zagreb during the earthquake on Sunday morning

“On Saturday night the police were driving around saying ‘get in your house, get in your house’ because of the coronavirus," Mr O’’Hara said.

"But 12 hours later everyone was screaming, ‘get out of your house, get out of your house’’ because of the earthquake."

“I live right in the epicentre of the damage on Palmoticeva street. At about 6.20am everything started to shake really, really violently.

“Watching disaster films caught up with me and I shouted to my flatmate, ‘get in the doorway’."

When a second earthquake struck minutes later they fled the building.

"Everyone was trying to keep social distancing as well.” 

It was like the end of days out there. And after a week of it being 20 degrees and sunny, it started snowing. It was freezing.

"Everyone was trying to keep social distancing as well.” 

Mr O’Hara eventually returned to this apartment where they are currently waiting for news from a civil engineer on whether the building will be condemned or not.

“There are only four of us left in the building," he said.

"All the ceilings are caving in on the second and third floor and there are large cracks in the walls. But getting any builder during the coronavirus lockdown will be hard."

Mr O’’Hara, who is originally from Bangor, Co Down and now manages the Garden Brewery in Croatia, has a pre-existing health condition which places him in the at-risk group for coronavirus and he says he hopes he does not have to move house in the middle of the pandemic.

"I’m housebound for the next 12 weeks but this is probably the safest place to be to avoid coronavirus now because everyone who could leave has left.

"There’s no one on the streets, there’s no one anywhere. It’s bizarre.

“We woke up this morning under two inches of snow and a blizzard, now we’re just waiting for a plague of locusts," he said with a laugh. 

Simon O’Keefe, 34, is originally from Ballyduff, Co Waterford but lived in Cork city for many years. He was also in Zagreb when the earthquake struck.

Had a strict coronavirus lockdown not been implemented just hours earlier, the earthquake could have caused a “massacre” that morning, he said.

“They had just called off public transport that Sunday, luckily, because a lot of damage was done along the tram lines," Mr O’’Keefe said.

People carry incubators for newborn babies as the hospital is evacuated after an earthquake in Zagreb, Croatia, Sunday, March 22, 2020. A strong earthquake shook Croatia and its capital on Sunday, causing widespread damage and panic. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
People carry incubators for newborn babies as the hospital is evacuated after an earthquake in Zagreb, Croatia, Sunday, March 22, 2020. A strong earthquake shook Croatia and its capital on Sunday, causing widespread damage and panic. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

“Also the churches had just had public services cancelled - and in one of those churches which has services at 6.30/7am normally on a Sunday - the entire roof caved in. So a massacre was avoided.” 

Remembering that morning Mr O’’Keefe, a craft beer brewer who now lives in Zagreb, said: “We were woken up by the earthquake, I couldn’t really process what was happening for a second.

There was this deep rumbling sound, the whole building was shaking, I didn’t know if I was awake or not because it was such a surreal feeling.

"Then I jumped up, threw some things into a bag and ran out of the apartment.

Hundreds of people were on the street, it was freezing cold and was starting to snow. We walked around the block to keep warm and five minutes later there was another earthquake.

"There was this deafening noise, like a really loud crash of thunder, the trees were shaking.

“Sunday was the first day that they had strict policies against congregating in place. So when everyone had to run outside during the earthquake, people were apprehensive about not talking and maintaining social distance.

“The two things completely contradict each other. You have to stay inside to avoid coronavirus but you have to go outside because there’s seismic activity."

Mr O’’Keefe said that dozens of tremors have been felt in Zagreb since Sunday. 

“It’s been a very scary experience. Since Monday we’ve had about 100 more tremors, I’’ve felt 20 or 30 of them. Every time one starts, you get that instant feeling of panic.

“Everyone’s in low-level panic because what if your building is damaged and you have to move out, how will you find another one in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown?

“I know families who have had to move into student accommodation because their homes were damaged. The military has been setting up a field of tents for affected families to move into.

“There couldn’t be a worse time for this to happen."

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