The 1977 Vrancea earthquake occurred on Friday, 4 March 1977, at 21:22 local time, and was felt throughout the Balkans. It had a magnitude of 7.2, making it the second most powerful earthquake recorded in Romania in the 20th century, after 10 November 1940 seismic event. The epicenter was situated in the Vrancea Mountains, the most seismically active part of Romania, at a depth of 94 km.
The earthquake killed about 1,578 people (1,424 in Bucharest) in Romania, and wounded more than 11,300. Among the victims were actor Toma Caragiu and writers A. E. Bakonsky, Alexandru Ivasiuc and Corneliu M. Popescu. Communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu suspended his official visit to Nigeria and declared state of emergency.
About 32,900 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Immediately after the earthquake, 35,000 families were without shelter. The economic losses are believed to have been as high as two billion US dollars though the sum was not confirmed by the authorities at that time. A detailed report on the destruction the earthquake caused was never published. Most of the damage was concentrated in Romania's capital, Bucharest, where about 33 large buildings collapsed. Most of those buildings were built before World War II, and were not reinforced. After the earthquake, the Romanian government imposed tougher construction standards.
In Bulgaria, the earthquake is known as the Vrancea earthquake or Svishtov earthquake. Three blocks of flats in the Bulgarian town of Svishtov (near Zimnicea) collapsed, killing more than 100 people. Many other buildings were damaged, including the Church of the Holy Trinity. In the Soviet Republic of Moldova the earthquake destroyed and damaged many buildings. In the capital Chişinău, a panic broke out.
The earthquake of 4 March 1977 was one of the worst earthquake disasters of the 1970s around the world. It caused the loss of 1,578 lives and injured an additional 11,221, with 90% of the fatalities being in the capital city Bucharest. The reported damage included 32,897 collapsed or demolished dwellings, 34,582 homeless families, 763 industrial units affected and many other damage in all sectors of the economy. A 1978 World Bank report estimated a total loss of US$2.048 billion, with Bucharest accounting for 70% of the total, i.e. US$1.4 billion. According to this report, out of Romania's 40 counties, 23 were strongly affected.
1Based on focal depth of 110 km
The city centre was particularly affected, the earthquake destroying iconic buildings such as the Scala building, the Continental-Colonadelor building, Dunărea, Casata, Nestor and others. Out of the 33 many-storeyed buildings that collapsed, 28 were built between 1920 and 1940 without earthquake resistant design. There was also the collapse of three public buildings (Ministry of Metallurgy, Faculty of Chemistry and Computer Centre) that due to the time of occurrence were not heavily occupied. On 5 March, the first toll of the disaster indicates 508 fatalities and 2,600 injuries. A final toll showed that 90% of the victims were from Bucharest: 1,424 deaths and 7,598 injuries.
No critical fires occurred, but electrical power was lost in large areas of the city for about a day. Nine of 35 hospitals were evacuated.
In the cities of Focșani and Buzău, unreinforced masonry walls in low-rise construction collapsed partially or totally, and there were signs of movement between structural elements and adjacent masonry in-fill walls in recently constructed engineered buildings.
The city of Zimnicea was reported in ruins: 175 houses collapsed, while 523 sustained serious damage, 4,000 people were displaced, and there were hundreds of victims. Inasmuch as 80% of the city was destroyed, Zimnicea was rebuilt from the ground. In Craiova, more than 550 buildings were severely damaged, among them the Museum of Art, the Oltenia Museum, the University and the County Library. Initial estimates indicate a total of 30 dead and 300 wounded. Vaslui also suffered heavy losses, both human – 7 people dead, and material.
In Ploiești around 200 homes were destroyed, and a further 2,000 were seriously damaged; the situation was also serious in Buzău County, where about 1,900 buildings were affected. In Plopeni, a Worker's Dormitory made of masonry totally collapsed, killing 30 to 60 workers and injuring many. Counties in Transylvania and Dobruja showed no serious damage.
The earthquake induced geomorphological phenomena in southern, eastern and northern Wallachia, as well as southern Moldavia. These consisted in landslides, liquefaction, settlements, water spurting; in Vrancea Mountains, the course of Zăbala River was partially blocked, forming a small natural dam lake.
The earthquake of 4 March heavily impacted Bulgaria. The city of Svishtov was the most affected. Here, three blocks of flats collapsed, killing up to 120 people, among them 27 children. Many other buildings were damaged, including the Church of the Holy Trinity. In Ruse, the tremors were strong but there was little damage; only one person perished, hit by a huge architectural ornament that fell down from a nearby building.
According to official data, 2,765 buildings were destroyed in the Moldavian SSR, while 20,763 buildings suffered more or less significant damage.
The earthquake epicenter was located in the south-west part of Vrancea County, the most active seismic area in Romania, at a depth of about 94 km (58 mi). The shock wave was felt in almost all countries in the Balkan Peninsula, as well as Soviet republics of Ukraine and Moldavia, albeit with a lower intensity. Seismic movement was followed by aftershocks of low magnitude. The strongest aftershock occurred on the morning of 5 March 1977, at 02:00 AM, at a depth of 109 km (68 mi), with a magnitude was 4.9 on the Richter magnitude scale. Other aftershocks' magnitudes did not exceed 4.3 or 4.5 Mw.
Reactions of authorities
At the time of the earthquake, Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were on an official visit to Nigeria. Ceaușescu heard about the disaster in the country from a Romanian official.
Initially, news about the earthquake was confusing, and people talked about a much larger catastrophe. Due to a power failure in Bucharest, communication services weren't run for several hours. The population took to the streets, scared of possible aftershocks. At that moment, authorities had not taken any concrete steps.
There were rescue teams from all blocks destroyed. Doctors, soldiers, men of different professions were presented at work. Nine hospitals were decommissioned. Floreasca Emergency Hospital in Bucharest, although seriously damaged, was taken by storm. Subsequently, it was evacuated. The Dinamo Stadium was turned into a triage point for the wounded. By the morning of March 5 work was underway on rehabilitating basic utilities – water, gas, telephony, electricity.
The presidential couple and Romanian delegation in Nigeria returned to Romania during the night of 4–5 March 1977. Afterwards Nicolae Ceaușescu imposed a state of emergency throughout the country. In the following days, the Head of State conducted visits to Bucharest to assess damage.
Teams of military and firefighters responsible for the rescue of possible survivors received aid from the Red Cross. They were joined by the Buftea film studio stuntsmen and many volunteers. Many people were rescued from the ruins, some after several days of being trapped.