April 7, 2009

Aftershocks Spark New Fear Among Italy’s Quake Survivors

Powerful aftershocks caused renewed fears throughout central Italy on Tuesday, as emergency crews rescued a young woman alive from the remains of a collapsed building some 42 hours after the main earthquake hit the region.

Rescuers found 20-year-old student Eleonora Calesini alive among the ruins of the five-story building in central L'Aquila, according to an Associated Press report citing her grandfather, Renato Calesini, from the seaside town of Mondaini.

The woman, who wears a hearing aid, was in good condition but reportedly had an arm injury.

"She's safe!" Renato Calesini told the AP.

The woman's father had traveled to the hard-hit city in the snowcapped Apennine mountains to try to find his daughter, he added. 

The quake was Italy's worst in 30 years, with the death toll climbing to 235 with 15 still missing, according to civil protection officials.  Among the dead are four students who became trapped in the rubble of a dormitory of the University of L'Aquila, according to an ANSA news agency report.

Rescue crews gave up delicately removing debris by hand and instead began using large pincers to remove part of the dorm's roof, walls and balconies, sending debris showering down.

"Unless there is a miracle, I've been told (by rescuers) that they probably are dead," said university rector Ferdinando Di Orio during an interview with the Associated Press.

A large aftershock at 7:47 p.m. sent debris falling down onto rescue crews and terrified residents, who ran from the site.

"I want to go home! I want to go home!" screamed one woman, whose hands trembled as rescuers gave her a glass of water.  Her boyfriend, Agostino Paride, 33, an engineer, told the AP the couple had driven some 45 miles to L'Aquila to bring food and clothing to relatives in a tent camp.

Roughly 20 such tent camps were set up in open spaces around L'Aquila and the surrounding towns to shelter the homeless against another cold mountain night.  Medical supplies, field kitchens and clowns with bubbles to entertain distressed children were brought in to the makeshift tent cities.

On Monday, officials estimated that the earthquake had left some 50,000 people homeless.  By Tuesday evening, the figures were lowered to between 17,000 and 25,000 as many affected by the quake sought shelter with friends and family.

"I don't know how I'll make it," an AP report cited a dazed Pierina Diletti as saying as she stood outside her tent in slippers and her nightgown.

Italy's Premier Silvio Berlusconi visited one of the encampments and said an estimated 14,500 people were being sheltered in the blue tents.  According to officials, 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed in the 26 cities, towns and villages surrounding L'Aquila, a scenic city with a population of about 70,000.

Officials planned to begin surveying the buildings left standing on Wednesday to assess whether it was safe for residents to move back in.

"The assessment will concern every room, every slit, every crack," Berlusconi told reporters during a news conference.

The assessments of the area's monuments, churches and other historical sites will begin soon, said Berlusconi, who toured the area by helicopter.

Rescue efforts will continue for another two or more days, he added,
"until it is certain that there is no one else alive."

Of the 1,000 injured in the quake, at least 100 were in serious condition, he said.

A large majority of buildings in Italy's most vulnerable earthquake-prone regions don't meet modern seismic safety standards, experts say.

About half the country is considered "dangerous" in terms of seismic activity, according to experts, yet only 14 percent of buildings in that region were constructed to seismic-safety standards.

In the town of Pescara, 16 families were sheltered at the Hotel Ambra, which provided free rooms to victims of the quake.

"They are a little traumatized," hotel business manager Vincenzo Traversa told the AP.

"It is not a beautiful experience."

To date, 6,500 hotel beds throughout the Abruzzo region were made available, with roughly 4,000 filled by Tuesday afternoon, according to Emilio Schirato, president of Abruzzo's hotel association.

Schirato told the Associated Press the rooms were "spontaneously" made available by hotel owners in a sign of solidarity.  However, some people only pretending to have lost their homes had also sought the free rooms, he said.

Carabinieri police were working to ensure that those being housed were, in fact, deserving, he added. 

Many in L'Aquila and the surrounding areas took shelter in their cars.

"It was a bad night," 18-year-old Francesco Marchi told the AP.

Fearing falling debris from aftershocks, he and his brother slept in his car in a piazza far from buildings.

"It was really cold, but we had sleeping bags."

An ANSA report cited fire officials who said that two buildings in the suburb of Pettino had collapsed following one particular aftershock.  However, no one was believed to be inside the buildings.

No one panicked as the ground shook in the devastated town of Onna, about six miles away.  Rather, residents walked around dazed, clutching any valuables they had managed to save before their homes collapsed. Onna had about 300 residents, but lost 40 in the quake.

"We lost 15 members of our family. Babies and children died," 70-year-old retiree Virgilio Colajanni told the AP as he held back tears.

Maj. Cristina DiTommaso with civil protection, who helped coordinate the rescue in Onna, said rescue efforts were complicated by an unknown number of undocumented immigrants living in the town.

Most of Italy's illegal immigrant population is from northern Africa, Romania and the former Yugoslavia, with many working in the agricultural sector as farmers or manual laborers.

Children, the elderly and pregnant women were given priority at the tent camps, as others made arrangements to stay with family or in second homes outside the quake area.

98-year-old Ines D'Alessandro moved to her sister's home in Sulmona after surviving her second major earthquake.   Her first, when she was just four years old in 1915, killed 30,000 people, ANSA reported.

"It is hard. I cry my heart out for all of these people struck by this tragedy, but one needs to have courage and I try to give it to others. I have fought all of my life," she told ANSA.

Sandra Padil, a Peruvian who is six months pregnant, spent the night in a tent without blankets as the temperatures fells to 43 degrees.

"We are calmer out in the open," said 32-year-old Padil, who has been living in L'Aquila since 1996.

"We didn't have blankets and it was cold, but at least this morning they gave us breakfast. Let's hope this ends quickly," she told the AP.

The main quake struck the region shortly after 3:30 a.m. on Monday, and registered a magnitude of 6.3, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.  However, Italy's National Institute of Geophysics, using the Richter scale, measured the quake at a 5.8 magnitude.

The quake was the country's deadliest since the magnitude 6.9 earthquake that hit Italy's southern regions on Nov. 23, 1980.   That quake destroyed entire villages and left roughly 3,000 dead.