Corigliano designed and sewed her wedding gown.

A century ago, she made it through one of the world's worst natural disasters


Josephine Corigliano was a survivor.

That would seem an apt description for anyone who makes it to 105, outliving not only parents but siblings, a husband and practically her entire generation.

But Corigliano, born Giuseppina Repaci, earned that title early in her life, a full century before her death at a Mitchellville nursing home last Jan. 30.

For 10 minutes before dawn on Dec. 28, 1908, the ground underneath her shook, and the ocean heaved near the southern Italian village where she lived. Her town, slightly uphill from the Messina Strait that separates Sicily from the mainland, escaped the 40-foot-high waves that raked the coast but lost most of its homes.

The roof of her family's home caved in, and a wall collapsed. Her younger brother, Dominic, then 3, woke up in a different room under a bed with fragments of the roof on top. Their father dug him out of the rubble with his hands. Corigliano, then 5, and the rest of her family survived. But the terror of the experience left deep scars.

Throughout the region, the earthquake, the equivalent of 7.5 on the Richter scale, and the tsunami that followed wiped out entire towns and took an estimated 100,000 lives, making it one of the world's worst natural disasters.

"She knew there'd been a lot of loss of life and their house had collapsed," her daughter, Angela Corigliano Murphy, 70, recalls. To house the quake victims, the government built temporary quarters, "which my mother called barracks."

To protect the family home from future quakes, Corigliano's father, Vincenzo Repaci, rebuilt it with steel rods reinforcing the concrete. Despite subsequent earthquakes, the house still stands, now owned by Repaci cousins.

In 1920 at age 17, Corigliano moved to the United States, and 17 years later, she married Carmelo Corigliano, who had emigrated from a coastal village in the same province where she had grown up. The couple had two children and eventually four granddaughters and two great-grandsons.

In the early years, Corigliano worked as an embroiderer and seamstress and, with her husband, ran a dress factory in New York City. She returned just once, in 1950, to visit her old home in Italy with both children, then 11 and 9. The loom that her mother had used to weave silk from cocoons still sat in the front room. It must have felt like deja vu for Corigliano one night during the visit when the earth shook -- another quake. With the windows vibrating, the children were rushed out of the house. Murphy was asleep in a second floor bedroom. Her mother woke her up.

"It turned out to be just a mild tremor, and everybody was talking about how the dogs and the chickens were making a racket," Murphy recalls. "But apparently there weren't enough dogs and chickens to make enough of a racket in 1908 to get people up and out."

Murphy's brother, Greg Corigliano, 68, now retired and living in California, recalls his mother explaining what had happened when she was 5: "I remember she talked about the earth swallowing up people, which was hard for me to imagine as a 9-year-old. She said [the 1950 quake] was nothing in comparison to when she was a child."

The family home in Italy

Josephine and Carmelo Corigliano moved to Bowie in 1985, into a townhouse development for seniors that had been built on the grounds of a former public school. They wanted to be closer to their daughter, who attended Trinity College in Washington and became a chemist. Carmelo Corigliano died 12 years later at age 97. Two years after that, his widow moved into the Villa Rosa Nursing Home in Mitchellville.

Corigliano outlived all nine of her siblings and half-siblings. With age, many things from her childhood began slipping from her memory, but she never forgot the night the ground shook and unhinged her world.

The experience left her "somewhat more fearful in life," her daughter believes. "She became afraid of heights, didn't like looking down or if you drove a car too fast or went around curves too fast. I have to think the ground shaking had something to do with that." Corigliano suffered dementia near the end, but one year seemed engraved in her mind.

"Even when she was in the nursing home, and my husband was telling an aide about her having survived the event, he made a mistake in the date ... and he said the earthquake of 1906," Murphy recalls. "She snapped out: 1908. She never forgot the event. She was close to 100 then. Even though she'd forgotten a lot of stuff by then, she never forgot it."

Eugene L. Meyer is a former Washington Post reporter and editor who freelances from Silver Spring. He can be reached at


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