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Published:April 7th, 2009 09:25 EST
Earthquake in Abruzzo Injured 1,500; Claimed Over 150

Earthquake in Abruzzo Injured 1,500; Claimed Over 150

By Christopher HIllenbrand

At 3:32 A.M. CET, Italy encountered its worst seismic disaster in over thirty years. The quake`s epicenter was concentrated in the history-rich central region of Abruzzo, Italy, located in the valley shadowed by the Apennine mountains on all sides, 70 miles northeast of Rome. The earthquake that rocked the very foundation of the region has now claimed over 150 lives and injured approximately 1,500 people as well as destroying entire blocks of structures hundreds of years old and putting tens of thousands out on the streets.

Emergency crews responded quickly to the quake`s catastrophic effects in the region, effectively quelling the chances that countless more might`ve lost their lives.

In nearby L`Aquila, the capital city of Abruzzo, firefighters reacted to several of the city`s buildings collapsing in the aftermath to rescue those trapped in the rubble and debris. One of buildings decimated by the 6.3-magnitude quake included a dormitory hall in the University of L`Aquila, which was initially believed to have still housed a dozen students inside. Though the body of a male student was found in the devastation, dozens were able to flee from the crumbling structure before it finally gave.

Luigi Alfonsi, a 22-year-old student residing in the now-destroyed dorm, recounted what had happened in the moments just before the building fell to the ground.

Alfonsi barely kept his composure as he said: "We managed to come down with other students but we had to sneak through a hole in the stairs as the whole floor came down. I was in bed - it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me. There was water gushing out of the broken water pipes, and the corridor which led to the stairs was partially blocked when a piece of the wall came down." Luigi Alfonsi was choked up by the end of his harrowing recollection.

Emergency workers continued scouring through the piles of steel and concrete for those who were last seen in the building before the quake hit. Unfortunately as the day turned to night, rescue efforts became recovery efforts as the authorities believe the possibility that people were still alive under tons of leveled stone and masonry is unlikely. As early Tuesday dawned on the workers toiling through the evening, they found one more body in the flattened dorm building.

Many students, who had friends and roommates housed in the dorm facility that are still missing, held an all-night vigil at the site, keeping each other warm in the cold and watching helplessly as rescuers assumed the brunt of finding those unaccounted for.

A frightened dog was found by volunteers and workers emerging from what was left of the dorm hall with a tender bleeding paw: indicative of how the tragic experience accosted all life in the small-town region miles away from Rome.

In the early morning hours on Tuesday, rescuers had to momentarily stop working when a second shock wave swept across structurally impaired buildings, causing them to topple over.

L`Aquila firefighters announced that they removed a 22-year-old male and 21-year-old female from the rubble of a five-story apartment building where many students from the city university stayed.

According to city officials in L`Aquila, about 10,000 to 15,000 buildings total were either partially affected or completely obliterated by the earthquake. The city`s mayor Massimo Cialente claimed that close to 100,000 are homeless, while the figures of the displaced in the surrounding region remain unclear to Italian authorities.

With so many residents in the dark out in the chaos, the majority of survivors banded together and provided each other emotional and spiritual support standing beside the ruins of their beloved city.

As a cultural cost to the city, the tremor impacted the treasured historic buildings dating from the medieval, renaissance, and romantic periods. Towers and outcroppings on basilicas and castles within the city limits were destroyed. The basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, containing the tomb of Pope Celestine V: the only pontiff to renounce his title, suffered from substantial damage to its centuries` old spires and framework. As a result of the aftershocks from the tremor, the bell tower on the San Bernardino cathedral, built in the 16th century, toppled to the ground in addition to portions from the Baroque Sant`Agostino church.

Certain parts of L`Aquila`s general hospital were evacuated of staff and patients for the threat of the structure falling down, while only two of the hospital`s operating rooms were used. A field hospital was being raised near the hospital to tend to the deluge of patient unable to receive adequate care from the disabled medical facility.

Authorities and civil servants in the city helped to raise a temporary tent city to house the homeless and served rations of bread and water to the needy.

Renato Di Stefano had to relocate his family to the tent city for time being after watching his home collapse. Di Stefano said: "It`s a catastophe and an immense shock. It`s struck in the heart of the city. We will never forget the pain."

In another part of the city, the Hotel Duca degli Abruzzi in L`Aquila`s historic center was extensively compromised, but still standing.

Giuseppe Proietti, a Culture Ministry official, said: "The damage is more serious than we can imagine. The historic center of L`Aquila has been devastated."

The Culture Ministry`s chambers in the city, based in a Spanish castle built in the 1500`s, were closed down due to quake-related damages. The castle held museums devoted to the city`s archaeology and art that were maintained by the ministry.

The city of L`Aquila, "The Eagle" in Italian, was erected in about 1240 under commission from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, whose control exchanged between the Spanish, French, and Italian rule over the last 769 years. The city was named after the seal of the emperor to commemorate his noble bastion seated in the Apennine mountains.

The effects of the tremor were as far-reaching as Rome, where thermal baths constructed circa 300 A.D. under the rule of emperor Caracalla were reportedly cracked and chipped. Italy`s Culture Ministry representative Giuseppe Proietti confirmed that the damage wasn`t as extensive as the destruction seen in Abruzzo, and the more iconic Roman statues and monuments weren`t damaged at all by the earthquake.

The Abruzzo region has been a hotbed for seismic activity since the end of March. Nine lesser tremors shook the region through the first five days of April before the mammoth geological event clobbered the area earlier on April 6th.

In a session held by the Italian parliament, legislators announced that 91 deaths were confirmed by emergency services, though many more are reputedly dead. That toll is expected to rise as the wreckage is combed through in the next couple days.

The Italian government also believes that churchs built almost three hundred years ago in small villages around the area have been destroyed in the ensuing aftershock.The tremor affected 26 cities and villages around the capital of L`Aquila.

Smaller municipalities like Castelnuovo and Onno, with populations under 500, were reportedly steamrolled by the quake and the following aftershocks.

Italy`s premier Silvio Berlusconi declared that the region of Abruzzo was in a state of emergency early Monday morning and has passed legislation to allocate federal money to aid the area. The trip he was planning to take to Russia was cancelled.

Pope Benedict XVI said a solemn prayer "for the victims, in particular for children. A Vatican spokesperson said the pontiff sent the archbishop of L`Aquila a personal letter of condolence. Since news of the calamity spread, well-wishes and support have come in for the earthquake-ravaged area.

The quake`s devastation pales in comparison to the last deadliest tremor in Italy`s history. On November 23th, 1980, a 6.9-magnitude tremor struck southern Italy and killed 3,000.

Safety experts stated that many of the archaic structures that were especially damaged or leveled weren`t retrofitted as they specified to reinforce them against earthquake damage.

Enzo Boschi, head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, said: "The collapses that occured in Abruzzo involved houses that weren`t built to withstand a quake that wasn`t particularly violent. We get all worked up after every earthquake, but it`s not in our culture to construct buildings the right way in a quake zone, that is, build buildings that can resist (tremors) and retrofit old ones. This has never been done."

In nearby Gran Sasso, Giampaolo Giuliani, a physics technician, proclaimed that he foresaw the quake happening days prior to local media affiliates by measuring unusually high levels of radon gas emitting from the ground, but was forced to keep his mouth shut. Ostensibly, Giuliani was being investigated by federal prosecutors for inducing panic by dubbing the city of Sulmona, Italy as the source of the upcoming seismic activity.

Boschi repeated a widely-believed scientific theory that earthquakes cannot be predicted and refuted Giulani`s claim when he said: "The information was completely wrong, he forecast it for Sulmona. Imagine if we had acepted such date and evacuated Sulmona, most of the evacuees would have been in L`Aquila today."

The last significant tremor to hit Italy occurred on October 31st, 2002, in the region of Molise south of Rome, when 28 people died, 27 of whom were children when their elementary school fell on top of them. That quake was registered as a 5.4-magnitude seismic disturbance, but because of the insufficient architectural refinements to the school, it especially weakened the structure`s integrity before tragedy struck.