“Some towns in the area have been virtually destroyed
in their entirety,” a somber Gianfranco Fini, speaker of Italy’s lower
house of parliament, said before the chamber observed a moment of silence.
Firefighters with dogs worked feverishly Monday afternoon to
reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a dormitory where half a
dozen university students were believed still inside.
Outside the half-collapsed building, part of the University
of L’Aquila, tearful young people huddled together, wrapped in blankets, some
still in slippers after being awakened by the quake.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi said more than 150 people have been killed .
As the search and rescue mission continues, as many as
50,000 people are homeless and 15,000 buildings declared off limits as
nightfall creeps closer.
Evacuees converged on an athletics field on the outskirts of
L’Aquila where a makeshift tent camp was being set up. Civil protection
officials distributed bread and water to people who lay on the grass next to
heaps of their belongings.
Berlusconi told reporters in L’Aquila that
tent cities and field hospitals would be set up there and hotels on the
Adriatic coast would be requisitioned to shelter the homeless.
Hospitals asked doctors and nurses throughout Italy to help.
The smell of gas filled parts of the mountain towns and villages, pouring out
of ruptured mains.
Most of the dead were in L’Aquila, a 13th-century mountain
city near the epicenter about 60 miles east of Rome, and surrounding towns and
villages in the quake-prone Abruzzo region that has had at least nine smaller
jolts since the beginning of April.
The quake took a massive cultural toll as well, with heavy
damage to multiple centuries-old churches in isolated villages in the area. Damage
to ancient monuments has been reported as far as Rome.
A wall of the 13th century Santa Maria di Collemaggio church
collapsed and the bell tower of the Renaissance San Bernadino church also fell.
The 16th castle housing the Abruzzo National Museum was damaged.
Houses, historic churches and other buildings were
demolished in the worst quake to hit Italy since Nov. 23, 1980, when one
measuring 6.9-magnitude hit southern regions, leveling villages and causing
some 3,000 deaths.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the big quake was magnitude
6.3, but Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8. Multiple
“When the quake hit, I rushed out to my father’s house
and opened the main door and everything had collapsed. My father is surely
dead. I called for help but no one was around,” Camillo Berardi told
Reuters in L’Aquila.
Rubble was strewn throughout the city of 68,000 people and
nearby towns, blocking roads and hampering rescue teams. Old women wailed and
residents armed with nothing but bare hands helped firefighters and rescue
workers tear through the rubble
Rescue crews demanded quiet as they listened for signs of
life from other people believed still trapped inside.
A man dressed only in his underwear wept as he was pulled from
the debris and embraced. A body lay on the sidewalk, covered by a white sheet.
Parts of L’Aquila’s main hospital were evacuated because
they were at risk of collapse, and only two operating rooms were in use.
Bloodied victims waited in hospital hallways or in the courtyard and many were
being treated in the open. A field hospital was being set up.
Berlusconi declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal
funds to deal with the disaster. He also canceled a visit to Russia to deal
with the quake aftermath.
Many modern structures in Italy over recent decades have
failed to hold up to the rigors of quakes along the country’s mountainous
spine, or in coastal cities like Naples. Despite warnings by geologists and
architects, some of these buildings have not been retrofitted in terms of
Stefania Pezzopane, provincial president of L’Aquila, said
residents may have been lulled into complacency because so many smaller quakes
had jolted the area, including two or three earlier in the night.
“Considering what happened, a bit more concern, more
attention might have saved lives,” she said.
National officials insisted no quake can ever be predicted
and that no evacuation could have been ordered on the basis of the recent
“There is no possibility of making any predictions on
earthquakes. This is a fact in the world’s scientific community,” Civil
protection chief Guido Bertolaso told reporters.
Several weeks ago, an Italian scientist predicted a major
quake around L’Aquila, based on concentrations of radon gas around seismically
active areas, Reuters reported.
Seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani was reported to police for
“spreading alarm” and was forced to remove his findings from the
Internet. Italy’s Civil Protection Agency reassured locals at the end of March
that tremors being felt were “absolutely normal” for a seismic area.