THUMANE, Albania (Reuters) - Fehmi Vata, 73, took a job as an overnight security guard to earn extra income so when the deadliest earthquake in decades hit Albania in Tuesday’s early hours, he was not at home in bed.
He rushed several kilometers (miles) home to find that his wife, two grandchildren and a daughter-in-law were trapped under the rubble of their first-floor flat in a collapsed five-storey apartment building in the town of Thumane.
A total of 27 people were killed, 650 injured and another 20 reported missing as a result of the strong 6.4 magnitude quake whose epicenter was 30 km (18 miles) west of the capital Tirana.
Fehmi’s 10-year-old grandson was among those pulled from the rubble alive, but his wife was not lucky. She died while cradling her grandson in her arms in an unsuccessful effort to protect him. His daughter-in-law survived but was badly injured and evacuated to hospital.
“My wife always said she would die for her grandchildren, it looks like she did that,” Vata said, sitting disconsolately on a concrete block in front of a red police tape that kept inhabitants and the media away from the piled wreckage.
A few meters (yards) away, Albanian and Greek rescuers were digging for more survivors. His other grandchild, 7 years old, remained buried in the ruins - probably somewhere under the stairs where he used to hide, according to Vata.
“I am sad because I cannot do anything for my grandchild, I can only pray for him,” he said, his face streaked with tears and his body shaking with grief.
“Why did God not take my soul instead?”
He said he had spoken to his wife by phone after an initial tremor early on Tuesday morning but that their apartment building caved in when the major 6.4 strength quake ensued.
The Vata family is impoverished like many in Thumane, living off farm labor and remittances sent from relatives living and working in affluent European Union countries.
Before the quake, Vata’s son, the father of the two boys, went to EU member state Greece to work for better pay for three months, the maximum he could stay without a work permit, leaving his wife and children behind to live with his parents.
Vata’s other son is mentally disabled and survived the tragic night only because he was staying with his sister in another town unscathed by the quake.
“My wife was the pillar of the home. She worked all day in agriculture...I may have been lucky to survive because I was a security guard, but what do I need my life for after what has happened to me?” Vata said.
Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Mark Heinrich