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Experiencing earthquakes in Croatia firsthand

Matthias Grimm
December 31, 2020

A series of earthquakes has been shaking Croatia. The strongest was a magnitude 6.4. The city of Petrinja, where DW's Matthias Grimm was staying, was hit the hardest.

Damaged houses in Petrinja
The earthquakes have caused severe damage in PetrinjaImage: Antonio Bronic/REUTERS

When I arrived in Petrinja on Monday afternoon, there had already been two relatively strong earthquakes. They were measured at magnitude 5.2, which is considered moderate by seismologists. There had been only slight damage — a few broken glasses and knocked over vases — and a bit of a shock for the residents.

Petrinja is a quiet little town in central Croatia with 25,000 inhabitants. I know the place well, because relatives of mine live there: My two cousins were born and grew up in Petrinja, and I have often visited them there from childhood on. I like the town and its surroundings, even if its many bullet-riddled facades and uncleared minefields still bring back memories of the 1991-95 war.

A map shows Petrinja

At about noon on Tuesday, my aunt was making coffee, one cousin was still sleeping, and the other was cleaning his teeth when the ground, the house and the furniture suddenly began to shake and vibrate with an intensity that no one who has not experienced it can imagine.

My cousin rushed out of the bathroom, with his toothbrush still in his mouth, and called his sister, who came running out of her room in a panic and close to tears. We all embraced one another, because the whole house was swaying from side to side with a violence that I would not have even dreamed possible before Tuesday.

Rushed earthquake escape

All we had been told about how to behave in an earthquake — stand near supporting walls, lie under a strong table, stay away from cupboards, wardrobes and stairwells — vanished from our minds. Our sole thought was to get out of the house because we had the feeling that it would collapse on us at any moment.

Rescue worker walking in front of a damaged building in Petrinja
Emergency services are doing their best to help residentsImage: Antonio Bronic/REUTERS

First, though, we had to drag my cousins' sick grandfather out of his room amid lamps falling from the ceilings and shelves coming down from the walls. We left the house in a panic, barefoot in pajamas and T-shirts; my cousin still had his toothbrush in his mouth.

Neither I nor any of the others could say how long we were in the house during the earthquake. According to reports, the first shock lasted 20-30 seconds.

When we got outside, we immediately saw what damage had been done to the house: The chimney had fallen from the roof, tearing a large hole and dragging a lot of tiles with it. Then the ground convulsed again — not as strongly as the first time, but we still felt it rising strangely under our feet, accompanied by a remote growl like thunder that seemed to come from the bowels of the earth. Over the day, this second quake was followed by about 20 further clearly perceptible aftershocks.

A building with a collapsed roof in Petrinja
Many roofs have caved inImage: Luka Stanzl/PIXSELL/picture-alliance

Emergency vehicles arrive

Shortly after the first earthquake, we heard sirens. Because my aunt lives directly on the road connecting Petrinja and Sisak, the next large town, all traffic between them has to pass by her house. At first, we saw just a few ambulances. Then, their number grew, and they were joined by fire engines, various other trucks and even tractors. Endless lines of emergency vehicles drove past the house the whole day long with their flashing blue lights and blaring sirens.

We did not yet know now many people in the town and surroundings had been injured or killed. It was not until later that my cousins and I walked through the town to see whether anyone needed help. All along the street, there were people sitting in front of their partly destroyed houses just as we had done, with a look of shock still on their faces — but apparently uninjured.

 Military excavation vehicles in Petrinja
Military personnel have been helping clear debrisImage: Luka Stanzl/PIXSELL/picture-alliance

We visited a 92-year-old man whom my cousin had been looking after since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The roof of his house was almost completely destroyed, but he himself had remained unhurt and did not want to leave his home under any circumstances. He lit up a fire in the oven, and the smoke from it went up through a hole gaping where there used to be roof tiles.

By now, we had decided to drive to my grandmother's in Bjelovar, which was untouched. Normally, the car trip there takes 1.5 hours. First, though, I had to go into my aunt's house again to try to find my identity papers amid the chaos of partly collapsed walls and furniture that had fallen over.

While I was in the house, I felt another tremor. This was a very light one, but the way the building vibrated again was enough to make me get out again as quickly as possible. Outside, I found that my cousins' grandmother had arrived. She had been at work in a care home for the elderly at the time the earthquake struck. All the residents there had to be evacuated.

Despite our pleas, my cousins' grandparents refused to drive to my grandmother's with us. They said they would rather die in their own house than flee. The grandmother said that she had already lost her house once, during the war, and that she was not going to let it happen again.

Their plan was to stay in the cellar. If the ground started to move again, they would get in the car, they promised. No matter what we tried, they would not budge from their intentions.

A patient being evacuated from hospital on a wheeled stretcher
Hospital patients in nearby Sisak had to be evacuatedImage: Antonio Bronic/REUTERS

Cars under rubble

After a tearful farewell, we joined the line of cars fleeing the town; on the other side of the road, more emergency service and construction vehicles came toward us. To the right and left, we saw destroyed roofs.

The sidewalks were covered in rubble. Some cars were buried under debris. There were long queues at gas stations because so many families were fleeing the region at once and wanting to fill up and buy water before they left.

Damaged building and car hit by rubble in Petrinja
Rubble covered the sidewalk and hit parked carsImage: Slavko Midzor/PIXSELL/REUTERS

When we arrived in Bjelovar at last after several hours, completely exhausted, we told my grandmother about all we had experienced, then went to bed, happy to have a roof over our heads. But, on Wednesday morning at half past 6, the earth shook again. We woke up and jumped out of bed straightaway — but the shaking had already stopped. Magnitude 4.4, with an epicenter near Petrinja again, we found out later. Several tremors followed.

My aunt says she does not know when and how she and her family can return home — or whether they can ever feel safe in their house again. Experts predict that there will be more earthquakes, but no one knows how strong or frequent they will be, or when the series will end.

This uncertainty and the fear and sense of helplessness it brings will long haunt people living in central Croatia. What is more, this is a region where many poor people live who have now lost even the little that they possessed and where almost no one has insurance that covers earthquake damage.

Now I am flying home to Cologne in Germany, to safety. It feels strange to leave my family in Croatia to fend for itself. I have many fond memories of my holidays with my relatives in Petrinja. But the most memorable of all has certainly been my stay in the past few days.

This article was adapted from German