Quake in Italy, 50 dead

Monday, April 6, 2009

ROME - At least 50 people were confirmed dead - amid fears of the number rising - after a central Italian mountain area around the ancient town of L’Aquila was rocked by a major earthquake that struck in the early hours of Monday.

The figure was confirmed by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni who spoke to reporters in L’Aquila. An estimated 50,000 people were homeless, according to civil defence officials.

Many more dead were feared to be under rubble after thousands of homes were wrecked or left dangerously cracked. Thousands of people were woken from sleep and left homeless, wandering the streets.

The Italian government declared a state of emergency and set up a major operation sending in troops and emergency services to an area largely cut off after access roads were left blocked.

Maroni told reporters that emergency services ‘could not have been quicker’ in getting to the region. ‘They were on their way just a quarter of an hour after the quake struck,’ he said.

Local media said many more bodies were expected to be unearthed after the quake - revised reports put its Richter scale strength at 6.2 - in central Italy’s Abruzzo region.

The regional capital L’Aquila and the ancient town of Castelnuovo were especially badly hit, as were the nearby towns of Paganmica and Poggio Picenze.

Four children were reported among the dead in one L’Aquila hospital. Buildings that collapsed included a student dormitory in the historic centre, plus a four-storey building where up to 20 people were feared trapped.

The quake, preceded by two strong tremors and followed by an aftershock of 4.7 strength, occurred at 3.32 a.m. from a depth of some five km, according to civil defence authorities.

Tremors were clearly felt in Rome about 90 miles (about 140 km) to the southwest, and as far afield as Naples. It was among the worst quakes to hit Italy in several decades, local reports said.

‘The house just collapsed on top of me,’ said one survivor, Vittorio Perfetto, who was able to put his experiences onto the internet.

Another survivor, 23-year-old Guido Mariani, described how he spent a terrifying three hours buried under rubble until rescuers were able to reach him.

There were reports of hospitals in the region overflowing with injured and cars and other vehicles kept pouring in to ferry people with major and minor injuries.

Shocked survivors wandered streets huddled in blankets to ward off the early morning chill, with L’Aquila reduced to a ghostly quiet. The dome of a central church caved in while the city’s cathedral was also damaged.

The US Geological Survey reported the strength of the quake at 6.3, saying it was centred 95 km north-east of Rome at a depth of 10 km.

A magnitude-4.7 aftershock was reported shortly after the quake, which was preceded by two tremors with magnitudes of 3.5 and 3.9, Italian authorities said.

A section of the highway from L’Aquila to Rome was closed, and electrical and telephone services were cut off in many areas.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi cancelled a planned visit to Moscow as he declared a state of emergency. ‘Let’s leave politics to one side,’ he said. ‘We must help those who need help.’

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