Measuring 6.7 on the open-ended Richter scale, the quake sent terrified residents running into the streets on Wednesday night in Algiers and towns to the east, along the populous Mediterranean coastal strip. The tremor, felt as far away as Spain, was Algeria’s worst in more than 20 years.
Some 24 hours after the quake struck, Algerian state radio quoted Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni as last night saying the death now stood at 1,092 and 6,782 people had been injured.
The worst devastation was in the town of Reghaia, just east of Algiers, where a seven-storey block of 78 apartments collapsed, and more than 350 people were feared to have died.
Hospitals in many cities found it almost impossible to cope. In some cities, bodies had to be piled up outside the hospitals and patients were treated in the open air.
In Algiers, around 60 buildings were destroyed, among them the Training Centre for the National Sporting Elite.
“There’s nothing left of the building. Over 200 dead were found last night and today more are being recovered,” said a Reuters photographer on the scene.
“You can smell the victims. Rescue workers are saying ‘one, here, one here’ as the search dogs find the dead.”
In Rouiba, a relatively prosperous city some 20 miles from the eastern edge of Algiers, one building after another was reduced to rubble.
“I have never seen such a disaster in my life. Everything has collapsed,” said Yazid Khelfaoui, whose mother was killed. The rubble of his apartment block was all around him.
The earth shook at 7.44pm local time, when many families were at home for dinner.
Algerian television showed dozens of bodies lined up under sheets and blankets, some clearly children.
“There were so many wounded, we couldn’t count them,” one harassed doctor said.
“It’s a tragic moment,” Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia told state radio. “It’s a misfortune that hits the whole of Algeria.”
In the city of Boumerdes on the coast, media spoke of people jumping from windows when the quake struck.
Bulouenes Sidiali, a resident of one block that collapsed to its foundations, said the building was only six months old.
“My friend went crazy this morning when he found his wife dead,” Sidiali said.
Ouyahia said security forces were on alert to stop looting in a country riven by a decade of violence by Islamist rebels. The strife has cost more than 100,000 lives and burdened an economy potentially wealthy from natural gas and oil exports.
Some 200 aftershocks hit northern Algeria in the first two hours after the quake and authorities said more would follow.
France dispatched 120 rescuers with sniffer dogs and equipment to its former colony. Germany sent 22 technicians, also with dogs and high-tech sound and imaging equipment.
Most of Algeria’s 32 million people live in the north, away from the Sahara desert.
Algiers, on the coast, is home to at least 2.6 million people.