Two earthquakes hit Armenia on December 7, 1988, killing 60,000 people and destroying nearly half a million buildings. The two tremors, only minutes apart, were measured at 6.9 and 5.8 in magnitude and were felt as far away as Georgia, Turkey and Iran.
It was 11:41 a.m. when the first, more powerful, earthquake hit three miles from Spitak, a city of about 30,000, and 20 miles northwest of Kirovakan. The epicenter was not far below the surface, which accounts in part for the terrible destruction. Also, only four minutes later, the 5.8-magnitude tremor struck nearby, collapsing buildings that had barely managed to hold during the first quake. An eight-mile rupture of the earth—several feet wide in spots—was later found to have been caused by the quakes.
Spitak experienced near total destruction. Most of the structures in the city were either cheaply constructed or had brick or stone roofs and nearly all collapsed from the shaking. In Leninakan, Armenia’s second largest city with close to 300,000 residents, about 80 percent of the buildings failed to stand. The sheer scale of destruction overwhelmed the country’s ability to respond. Worse still, officials (controlled by the Soviet government at the time) delayed giving permission for rescuers and relief workers to enter the area. In fact, 10 days after the quakes, all foreigners were ordered out.
Those rescuers who were able to enter worked for over a week trying to find survivors. The last survivor was pulled out from under rubble on December 15. Many experts believe that the death toll may have far exceeded the initial 60,000 estimate in part because thousands of people experienced crushing injuries during the quake. These victims often experienced kidney problems following the trauma and died when local health officials were not equipped to treat them.
When rebuilding began in subsequent years, more attention was paid to using appropriate construction materials and putting height limits on buildings.