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Death toll in Italy quake on the rise

Past glories and future hopes came crashing down together in central Italy amid a powerful earthquake Monday that crumbled centuries-old churches and claimed the lives of at least 150 people, leaving hundreds more injured and thousands homeless.

As dawn broke this morning, rescue workers in the mountainous region of Abruzzo continued searching for scores of people believed buried in the rubble of buildings that in some cases had stood fast since medieval times. The ruined structures included an ornate basilica where a 13th century pope was crowned and an imposing castle full of priceless relics.

The city of L’Aquila, near the quake’s epicenter, was transformed from a historic town built of warm, honey-colored stone into a disaster scene cloaked in choking gray dust.

Residents who had been sleeping peacefully were jolted awake by the 6.3 temblor, which ripped through the area about 3:30 a.m. Monday after weeks of tremors and subterranean rumbles that hinted at the possibility of worse to come. The violent shaking of a few seemingly eternal seconds leveled homes and dislodged masonry that smashed to pieces on the pavement and slammed into cars, crushing them.

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Survivors wandered around, dazed, for hours, some of them still in their pajamas, others clutching mementos and random belongings grabbed before the rush outside into predawn blackness.

Authorities said that as many as 50,000 residents had been made homeless by the temblor.

Around 1 a.m. today an aftershock that lasted for a few seconds could be felt as far away as Rome, but it appeared to cause no further damage.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency and canceled a trip to Moscow even as critics complained of official failure to strengthen buildings in an area prone to seismic activity. Repeated tremors had been reported over the last few months in Abruzzo, which led one local scientist to warn of an impending large quake before authorities blamed him for causing public panic with allegedly unfounded predictions.

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As dusk fell Monday and temperatures dropped, relief workers pitched tents for the displaced.

Officials said 4,000 hotel rooms would be set aside for refugees of the quake.

Homes were leveled, cars were crunched by falling masonry and dust was everywhere in L’Aquila, a town of about 70,000 people approximately 60 miles northeast of Rome and close to the epicenter. Strong aftershocks rattled nerves, complicated the rescue effort and caused already weakened buildings in the regional capital to shed tiles in sprays that forced bystanders to scurry for cover.

“The damage is incalculable. Entire buildings have collapsed, innumerable homes destroyed or rendered unsafe. Many public buildings have been damaged,” Stefania Pezzopane, the president of L’Aquila’s province, told an Italian news agency.

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Among the fallen structures were churches and other buildings of inestimable historical value, some dating back to medieval times, according to Italy’s Ministry of Culture. The apse of L’Aquila’s Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, a pink-and-white architectural gem that witnessed a papal coronation in 1294, collapsed. The temblor also razed a beautiful archway built in the 16th century to honor the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The tower of the city’s Renaissance-era Church of San Bernardino came tumbling down, as did part of a castle from the same period that now houses a national museum.

Old churches and castles dot the scenic Abruzzo countryside, making it a popular tourist destination. But authorities appealed to visitors to refrain from going to the area so as not to hamper relief efforts.

Outlying villages were hit hard, with one hamlet, Onna, completely flattened, local media reported.

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Reached by telephone in the village of Paganica, Peter Civisca, who runs a bed-and-breakfast, said he was staying put inside.

“Our house is modern and withstood the shock, but people have been killed here,” he said. “We’ve been having tremors for the last six months, but we’ve never had anything this big.”

In L’Aquila, tearful students wrapped in blankets huddled outside a partially collapsed university dormitory, waiting for word of missing classmates.

“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,” Luigi Alfonsi, 22, told the Associated Press, his hands trembling. “I was in bed -- it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me.”

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In some places, volunteers and rescue workers scrabbled at debris with their bare hands, afraid that heavy equipment might cause further damage. At times they shushed onlookers in order to catch the possible cries or scratchings of survivors beneath the rubble. As darkness fell, rain made the work even more difficult.

Earlier in the day, a man in L’Aquila clad only in his underwear and coated in dust sobbed in his rescuer’s arms after being pulled out. But others were not so lucky, their bodies covered with sheets out on the streets before the coffins began arriving.

Local hospitals, some of them too compromised structurally to receive patients, were stretched to the limit.

Only one or two operating rooms were available, forcing ambulances to ferry some of the injured to Rome, local media reported.

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Other countries have offered assistance, but the head of Italy’s civil defense agency said none was needed immediately.

Condolences poured in from around the world, including from President Obama, who was in Turkey.

In a telegram issued by an aide, Pope Benedict XVI said he offered “fervent prayers for the victims, especially the children.”

The Abruzzo region has long been a quake hot spot. A devastating temblor in January 1915 killed 33,000 people.

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Last week, the Corriere della Sera newspaper published a prediction by Giampaolo Giuliani, a scientist at the National Institute of Astrophysics, that a major quake was imminent based on concentrations of radon gas found in the area.

Giuliani, who lives in L’Aquila, raised a public alarm about an impending earthquake last month.

But scientists do not agree on the effectiveness of radon gas as an indicator of future seismic activity, and officials accused Giuliani of sowing panic, denouncing him and others as “imbeciles who amuse themselves putting about false warnings,” Italian press reports said.

“Now there are people who have to apologize to me and who will have on their conscience the weight of what has happened,” Giuliani was quoted as saying Monday on the website of the newspaper La Repubblica.

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Berlusconi brushed aside questions about whether the government had adequately prepared for an earthquake.

“In the last six months, seismic activity has been noted, and people say we have not taken precautions,” Berlusconi said.

“This is not the time to argue. Now is the time to act.”

Critics also accused officials of dragging their feet on upgrading buildings for seismic safety despite the history of quakes not just in central Italy but other parts of the country.

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“We don’t construct buildings to withstand quakes, nor do we revamp old buildings to make them safe from collapse,” Enzo Boschi, the chairman of Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, told the ANSA news service. “We have detailed maps which indicate the areas that are most at risk of earthquakes, and we have also indicated what actions are needed to make buildings safe. But little or nothing has been done.”

On Monday, survivors concentrated on looking for missing loved ones and finding shelter for coming days after being warned by authorities not to return to their homes.

“We are on our knees,” an unidentified man in Paganica told the Sky TG24 news channel. “We are saved, but who knows how many are buried.”

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henry.chu@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Rome and Janet Stobart of The Times’ London Bureau contributed to this report.


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