Disoriented victims tried to assist one another in Lorca. (European Press Photo)

MADRID — Two earthquakes struck within two hours of each other in southeast Spain on Wednesday, killing at least eight people, injuring scores more and severely damaging some buildings.

Spain is hit by hundreds of quakes a year, but most are too small to be felt. The deadliest recent quake struck in 1956, killing 12 people.

The first quake hit Wednesday afternoon and had a magnitude of 4.5; it was followed by one with a magnitude of 5.1, according to the United States Geological Survey. The epicenters of the quakes were a few kilometers outside the town of Lorca, according to the Spanish National Geographic Institute.

The regional government of Murcia said late Wednesday night that eight people had died and 40 people were taken to the hospital. Thousands of people had also left their homes because of the risk of additional tremors, according to the local government; many spent the night in emergency shelters.

The army sent about 350 troops to Lorca to help local rescue teams search for possible victims.

Many people were driving home from work or doing their evening shopping by the time the second quake hit. A large church bell and part of the building’s facade fell to the ground a few yards from a reporter from the Spanish national television as he was broadcasting live about the damage in Lorca.

One caller told national radio that “there are thousands of disoriented people,” Reuters reported.

The south and southeast of Spain are particularly vulnerable to quakes because of their proximity to a large fault beneath the Mediterranean.

The second quake on Wednesday, which occurred around 6:45 p.m. local time, was felt as far as almost 220 miles away in Madrid, the capital.

The earthquakes come as politicians are campaigning across Spain ahead of municipal and regional elections on May 22. The government said that the electoral campaign would be interrupted on Thursday in the wake of the earthquake. — NYT