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Nearly 180 dead in Italy quake

April 6, 2009

by Guy Dinmore in L’Aquila, Italy

Published: April 6 2009

dsc_7496Rescue workers with heavy lifting gear were struggling on Tuesday to find survivors after Italy’s worst earthquake in nearly 30 years turned the historic medieval centre of L’Aquila into a ghost city. Rescuers said 179 people had been killed and at least 1,500 injured, with many more still missing.

As darkness fell on Monday night six students were recovered alive from the rubble of their hostel and one confirmed dead, as hopes were fading for others trapped in a nearby apartment block. These were among thousands of buildings left in ruins or damaged in the city and surrounding villages. Some 100,000 people had evacuated the area, with a tent city being prepared because of the danger of after-shocks. Residents filed out of L’Aquila dragging suitcases behind them. Empty streets were silent except for the occasional car alarm. About 1,500 people were injured.

Questions were already being raised over whether relatively modern buildings, including the student hostel with some 120 residents, had been constructed according to anti-seismic standards. There was also a controversy over whether the authorities had downplayed warnings of recent seismic activity in the area. There had been some warnings. Schools and the university had been closed for two days last week after serious tremors but life had returned briefly to normal.

One dust-covered fireman pointed to centuries-old stone buildings still intact next to the hostel, which lay lopsided, with its lower floors flattened. “I don’t have much hope,” he said as a crane slowly removed sections of concrete. A young student in shock simply said: “We are waiting for our friends.”

Many medieval homes and famed churches in the central region of Abruzzo also bore heavy damage. The dome of the 13th-century Santa Maria Paganica had collapsed. Elderly residents sat dazed in the piazza outside, their friends beneath rubble nearby. Streets were filled with debris and cars crushed flat by fallen blocks of stone. Few buildings were left unscathed and residents wondered whether it would be months or years before they could safely return. Older houses and buildings made of stone, particularly in outlying villages that have not seen much restoration, collapsed like straw houses.

dsc_7376“No tears,” said Francesco Massimi as he collected books and belongings from his shattered home. As he spoke, another tremor struck, sending him back out into the street. Dust and plaster covered his bed. He thanked God for saving his family and put his faith in government promises of reconstruction aid. Few have earthquake insurance.

Guido Bertolaso, head of the civil protection agency in charge of rescue efforts, said it was the worst quake in Italy this millennium. Thirty schoolchildren were killed in a quake in southern Italy in 2002.

“I woke up hearing what sounded like a bomb,” said Angela Palumbo, 87, as she walked on a street in L’Aquila. “We managed to escape with things falling all around us. Everything was shaking, furniture falling. I don’t remember ever seeing anything like this in my life,” she said.

L’Aquila, a hilltop town on the edge of the Apennine mountain range now better known as a university city, has suffered quakes through the centuries. “Such a beautiful city of history and tradition, it deserves to be saved,” said Mr Massimi.

Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, declared a national emergency and cancelled a visit to Moscow. The earthquake, which struck at just after 3.30 on Monday morning, was the most devastating since 1980, when more than 2,700 people were killed in the town of Eboli, south of Naples.

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