Temblor in Italy Takes Heavy Toll

By Katia Dolmadjian
Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

L'AQUILA, Italy, April 6 -- L'Aquila, close to the epicenter of Monday's deadly earthquake in central Italy, was a ghost town as the sun began to set, with few residents willing or able to spend the night at home.

An eerie silence descended inside the medieval city's ancient walls, where the ravages left by the temblor that killed at least 179 people and injured 1,500 others in the mountainous region were apparent everywhere, with stones, tiles and rubble littering the narrow streets.

Cars crushed by heavy debris, a fallen bell tower and a church whose frescoes were bared to the elements by the collapse of its dome completed a picture of devastation.

"You can't come this way, and don't take pictures, there are dead bodies down there," said a police officer at the entrance to an alley where several crumbled walls could be seen.

L'Aquila, about 60 miles northeast of Rome, is capital of the quake-prone Abruzzo region, which has had at least nine smaller jolts since the beginning of April, according to the Associated Press. The quake struck at 3:32 a.m. and was measured at magnitude 6.2, according to Italy's national geophysical institute, which added that more than a dozen aftershocks followed.

L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said about 100,000 people were left homeless, the AP reported. It was not clear whether the mayor's estimate included surrounding towns.

"Some of the inhabitants have left of their own will, while others have been escorted by the authorities," a public safety official in L'Aquila said. "You can say that most of the old city has been emptied of its residents."

Some people with serious injuries were evacuated to nearby cities.

Public safety workers joined police officers patrolling the narrow streets, going from door to door to check on those planning to sleep in their own beds.

"We're trying to help people who decided to stay," the official said. "They're mostly elderly people, and we want to make sure they have all they need for the night. We're also patrolling to prevent thefts from empty homes."

"There's no way I'm leaving my home," said Maria D'Andrea, 82. "Anyway, there's no damage to my apartment. My brother was an architect, and he used earthquake-proof materials."

"Everything stayed put, even though the earthquake was terrible," she added. "But obviously I'm going to sleep very badly tonight."

Another resident, who gave only her first name, Cristina, opened her bar Monday for a bit of company, "to see people instead of staying home alone -- until this evening," she said with a nervous laugh. "My apartment held up all right, but I'm terrified that everything will start over again after it gets dark."

The bar was one of the few businesses open in the old town, but Cristina was unable to serve coffee because her water supply had run dry. She was also running out of bottled mineral water, she said.

The city has turned barracks, stadiums and gyms into makeshift mess halls and dormitories for newly homeless residents who remained in L'Aquila with nowhere to go. People began heading to shelters in the afternoon, bringing blankets and a few belongings.

Meanwhile, rescue workers battled the clock as they searched for more survivors before nightfall.

The United States said Monday it would donate $50,000 in emergency aid to Italy.

"We send our heartfelt condolences to the families of those killed in the earthquake. Our embassy in Rome will provide $50,000 in emergency relief funding," State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters in Washington.

Italian authorities told the United States they did not need rescue teams, Wood said.

President Obama earlier offered his condolences while on a visit to Turkey and voiced hope that the United States could send rescuers.

Wood said that there were no reports of U.S. citizens among the dead or injured but that the U.S. Embassy in Rome was reaching out to Americans living in the region.

In addition to the loss of life, the quake took a severe toll on L'Aquila's prized architectural heritage, according to the AP, with about 10,000 to 15,000 buildings either damaged or destroyed. The city was built as a mountain stronghold during the Middle Ages and has many prized Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings.

Parts of many of the churches and castles in and around the city have collapsed. Centuries-old churches in many isolated villages in the area are believed to have partly collapsed, and damage to ancient monuments has been reported as far away as Rome.

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