Italian quake kills 150, devastates medieval town

7th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

More than 1,700 rescuers scrambled in driving rain to find victims trapped under collapsed dwellings in the regional capital of L'Aquila, the quake's epicentre, while officials warned the toll would rise.

L'Aquila -- A violent earthquake rocked central Italy on Monday killing at least 150 people, injuring 1,500 and devastating a walled medieval town where buildings and homes were reduced to rubble.

More than 1,700 rescuers scrambled in driving rain to find victims trapped under collapsed dwellings in the regional capital of L'Aquila, the quake's epicentre, and officials warned the toll would rise.

Some 50,000 people were made homeless, emergency services said. Many residents fled L'Aquila, some even on foot.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency and cancelled a trip to Russia in order to visit the Abruzzo region's main town, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Rome.

Rescue workers said at least 150 people were killed, Italian media said, while Berlusconi told a news conference here that 1,500 people were injured, adding that a student from the Czech Republic was among the dead.

"No one will be abandoned to his fate," he vowed, adding that a tent village was being set up that could accommodate between 16,000 and 20,000 people and would be ready by nightfall.

In the late afternoon police began going door to door in L'Aquila, checking that people who had decided to stay in the crippled town -- most of them elderly -- had what they needed for the night.

"We're also patrolling to prevent thefts from empty homes," an officer told AFP after reports of looting.

The quake struck just after 3:30 am (0130 GMT) and lasted about 30 seconds, bringing down many Renaissance era and Baroque buildings, including the dome on one of L'Aquila's centuries-old churches. The city's cathedral was also damaged.

Roofs caved in on sleeping inhabitants and boulders fell off mountain slopes blocking many roads. At least five children were among the dead in L'Aquila, according to police quoted by ANSA news agency.

The earthquake measured magnitude 6.2, according to the Italian geophysical institute.

The quake, whose epicentre was five kilometres (three miles) directly below L'Aquila, inflicted damage up to 30 kilometres (20 miles) away in all directions.

Rescue workers pulled several people alive out of one four-storey building and said they could hear the cries of a woman still trapped. They planned to try to lift the roof with a giant crane.

Doctors treated people in the open air outside L'Aquila's main hospital as only one operating room was functioning.

L'Aquila resident Maria Francesco said: "It was the apocalypse, our house collapsed. It's destroyed, and there's nothing left to recover."

"It's a scandal what's happened," she told AFP. "For the past three months there have been regular tremors, and they've been getting stronger and stronger!"

Luigi D'Andrea, a student, was asleep when the quake struck. "Everything shook really hard and bricks started falling on me. Then it was an entire wall that collapsed in my bedroom, then a second."

He escaped through a neighbour's flat and returned to recover his computer. "I'm very lucky I wasn't hurt, but now I don't know what to do, whether I should leave here or not. I'll wait and see."

L'Aquila, the region's only university town, suffered the biggest toll while police reported deaths in the towns and villages of Castelnuovo, Poggio Picenze, Torminparte, Fossa, Totani and Villa Sant'Angelo, ANSA reported.

Condolences and offers of help poured in from around the world.

"We want to send our condolences to the families there," US President Barack Obama said during an official visit in Turkey.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the US embassy in Rome would provide 50,000 dollars in emergency relief funding.

Italian authorities told countries offering assistance they did not need rescue teams.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon was "saddened by the loss of life and destruction of property in central Italy," his spokeswoman said.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said his country was shocked by the tragedy, adding: "We sympathise with those who have suffered and share their sorrow."

Pope Benedict XVI, too, sent his prayers, the Vatican said.

Italy is criss-crossed by two fault lines, making it one of Europe's most quake-vulnerable regions, with some 20 million people at risk.

A powerful earthquake in central Italy claimed 13 lives in 1997 and damaged or destroyed priceless cultural heritage.

An October 2002 quake killed 30 people including 27 pupils and their teacher who were crushed under their schoolhouse in the tiny medieval village of San Giuliano di Puglia.

On November 23, 1980, a quake struck the southern region of Irpiona near Naples, killing 2,570, injuring 8,850 and displacing 30,000.


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