A powerful earthquake tore through central Italy on Monday killing more than 90 people as Renaissance buildings in a historic town were reduced to rubble.
The quake hadn’t been completely unexpected. Italy muzzled a scientist who foresaw it.
“Vans with loudspeakers had driven around the town a month ago telling locals to evacuate their houses after seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani predicted a large quake was on the way, prompting the mayor’s anger,” Gavin Jones reports for Reuters.
Jones adds, “Giuliani, who based his forecast on concentrations of radon gas around seismically active areas, was reported to police for ‘spreading alarm’ and was forced to remove his findings from the Internet.”
The Telegraph reports he also “posted a video on YouTube in which he said a build-up of radon gas around the seismically active area suggested a major earthquake was imminent.”
A New York Times blog report notes, “The Italian version of PC World has an article about Mr. Giuliani’s warning, featuring an interview with him posted on YouTube, in which he repeated the prediction just a few days before the quake struck.”
Rescue workers quoted by the Italian media, said the provisional death toll had risen to 92, updating an earlier toll of 50 dead, while officials said more than 1,500 people had been injured in the deadly quake.
Hundreds of rescuer workers scrambled to find victims trapped under collapsed homes in L’Aquila, which bore the brunt of the quake, and officials warned the toll would rise.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency and cancelled a trip to Russia so he could go to the city, the capital of the Abruzzo region, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Rome.
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 the hundreds of years old churches in L’Aquila. 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 quake measured magnitude 6.2, according to the Italian geophysical institute.
The epicentre was only five kilometres (three miles) directly below L’Aquila which explained the heavy damage that was inflicted up to 30 kilometres away in all directions.
Sirens blared across the city as rescue workers with dogs raced to find survivors. Many of the 60,000 residents fled into the streets as more than a dozen aftershocks rattled the buildings.
Some even left L’Aquila by foot with belongings in suitcases leaving behind the historic buildings with badly cracked walls and debris strewn across the streets.
Rescue workers pulled several people alive out of one four-storey building and said they could hear the cries of one 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 suffered the biggest toll. Other dead were reported in the surrounding towns and villages of Castelnuovo, Poggio Picenze, Tormintarte, Fossa, Totani and Villa Sant’Angelo, said police quoted by ANSA.
US President Barack Obama, in Turkey as part of a landmark European tour, expressed concern. “We want to send our condolences to the families there and hope that we are able to get rescue teams in,” Obama told a press conference.
Pope Benedict XVI was praying for the victims, the Vatican said. But Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy’s public safety department, warned the toll would rise.
“It’s an event that will mobilise the nation for many weeks,” he said, adding that at least 10,000 homes or buildings had been damaged in the quake.
Some 15,000 people suffered a power outage and the L’Aquila to Rome highway was closed.
The quake came about five hours after a 4.6-magnitude tremor shook the Ravenna district in Emilia-Romagna region, which was felt over a wide area, notably in the Marche region on the Adriatic coast, officials said.
A powerful earthquake in the region claimed 13 lives in 1997 and damaged or destroyed priceless cultural heritage.
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.
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 violent quake struck the southern region of Irpiona near Naples, killing 2,570, injuring 8,850 and displacing 30,000.