On December 28, 1908, at approximately 5:20am, Europe's most powerful earthquake shook southern Italy. Centered in the Messina Strait, which separates Sicily from Calabria, the quake's magnitude equaled a 7.5 by today's Richter scale. Moments after the quake's first jolt, a devastating tsunami formed, causing forty-foot waves to crash down on dozens of coastal cities.
The Messina quake was undeniably the most destructive to ever hit Europe. Most of southern Italy's cities lost as many as half their residents that morning. The population of the city of Messina alone — 150,000 — was reduced to only hundreds; the total death toll throughout Italy was estimated at nearly 200,000. Accounts of shaking and aftershocks were reported throughout Sicily. Signs of the jolt even appeared in Washington, D.C., where the day's crude technology picked up signals of the disaster.
Those who survived the quake faced the bleakest of realities. Their homes were destroyed, their family members were dead, and the cities around them were reduced to rubble. The Italian government relocated many of the Messina survivors to new cities within Italy. Others were forced to emigrate to America. In 1909 a cargo ship, the"Florida" carried 850 such passengers away from Naples. The "Florida" would transport the survivors to a new life in New York City.
After two weeks on the Atlantic, the "Florida's" passengers endured a second disaster: lost in dense fog, the "Florida" collided with the "Republic," a luxury passenger liner. Three people aboard the "Florida" were killed instantly. Within minutes, pandemonium broke out on the ship. The captain of the "Florida," Angelo Ruspini, used extreme measures to regain control of the desperate passengers, including firing gunshots into the air.
After being rescued at sea, the damaged "Florida" and the Messina earthquake survivors arrived in New York's harbor. Shaken and unnerved, the immigrants confronted a new challenge: to begin their lives again.