Death toll rises as Italian rescuers search for survivors

7th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

The rescue of a young woman trapped under tons of rubble for 23 hours after an earthquake hit Italy offers a glimpse of hope to rescuers as death toll soars to 207.

L'AQUILA – Italian rescuers raced against time Tuesday to find survivors from an earthquake that killed at least 207 people, toiling through the night pulling away rubble with their bare hands.

A woman rescued by a group of specialist cavers, 23 hours after the powerful quake devastated the town of L'Aquila, having painstakingly removed slabs of concrete that trapped the 24-year-old.

The 2:00am rescue of Marta Valente was a rare piece of good news and hopes of saving more of the dozens of people still missing rapidly faded.

Hundreds of people were being treated in a field hospital set up inside the medieval city. Some 1,500 people were injured by the quake which devastated L'Aquila and surrounding villages.

Volunteer groups joined professional rescue teams who used sniffer dogs to locate other victims, working overnight with mechanical diggers under giant spotlights to lift the heaviest rubble.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency in the central Abruzzo region and cancelled a trip to Russia in order to visit L'Aquila, about 100 kilometres northeast of Rome.

"No one will be abandoned to his fate," he vowed.

Of the 207 dead, 39 were in the tiny nearby town of Onna, which had a population of around 250, the ANSA news agency said.

On Tuesday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the death toll in Italy's earthquake has risen to 207, with 15 still missing and 178 injured.

Of the injured, 100 are in a serious condition, Berlusconi told a televised news conference at the epicentre of the earthquake, the Abruzzo capital L'Aquila.

About 17,000 people lost their homes, rescue authorities said Tuesday, and a tent village was set up for between 16,000 and 20,000 people.

Interior Minister Robert Maroni announced EUR 130 million in emergency funds for the rescue operation, and that more funds would become available.

"We will find all the resources we need for this national emergency," Maroni said on Italian television.

However anger towards the authorities was mounting, with villagers saying the warning signs had been clear to see in recent weeks.

"It was the apocalypse, 20 minutes of hell, our house collapsed. It's destroyed, and there's nothing left to recover," said L'Aquila resident Maria Francesco.

"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!"

"My husband has been helping the rescue workers and he has been taking away bodies with his bare hands. It is just a nightmare," said one Onna resident called Silvana, who would only give her first name, as she pointed to a pile of bricks and mortar that once housed the local school.

Dozens of people spent the night trying to sleep in their cars, as the temperatures dropped to near freezing.

With so many homes and businesses abandoned, there were reports of looting.

Maroni said 200 police were assigned to patrol against looting.

"Unfortunately there were a few cases yesterday, and today we will reinforce the contingent," he added.

The epicentre of the quake was under L'Aquila and massive destruction was reported for 30 kilometres in all directions from the town. The nearby villages of Villa Sant'Angelo and Borgo di Castelnuovo were practically wiped out.

The national geophysical institute recorded 280 aftershocks had been recorded since the main quake at 3:32 am Monday morning, ANSA said.

The quake lasted about 30 seconds, bringing down many buildings, including the dome on the 16th-century San Bernardino church. The city's cathedral was also damaged.

Roofs caved in on sleeping inhabitants and boulders fell off mountain slopes blocking many roads.

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

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

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.

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.

AFP / Expatica

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