Medieval Italian hill town destroyed in deadly earthquake was preparing to celebrate food festival

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 August, 2016, 3:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 August, 2016, 10:38pm

In three days, the rugged residents of the medieval Italian hill town of Amatrice had planned to hold one of their most joyful events of the year: the 50th edition of a food festival celebrating their beloved Amatriciana pasta dish, which is made from local ingredients.

Instead, they will now be mourning the dozens dead from a strong earthquake that trapped residents in their homes as they slept.

Three quarters of the town is not there anymore
Mayor Sergio Piorizzi

Due to the upcoming food festival, known as a sagra, there was an influx of visitors to the town, so it was very hard to know how many people were sleeping Wednesday morning in Amatrice when the quake struck at 3.36am.

The mayor said about 70 people had been staying in the Hotel Roma, a town landmark that has a restaurant which serves the famous pasta dish. Rescue workers pulled five bodies from the rubble of the hotel but had to halt rescue operations late on Wednesday night because it was too dangerous working in the dark.

Roberto Renzi said he was sleeping “soundly and most tranquilly” when he was jostled awake by the 6.2-magnitude tremor. He said he instantly knew this quake was far, far worse than the “little movements” locals are used to in this quake-prone belt straddling Italy’s rocky Apennines mountains.

His three-story house and the one next to it miraculously remained standing, but the door to his third-floor bedroom was jammed by the quake. He grabbed a fire stoker and pried the door open and ran with his wife to the safety of the street. Renzi said a woman who owns a bed and breakfast across the street escaped by knotting bed sheets and climbing down her building.

Some people never made it out of their beds at all. Dozens are dead in Amatrice amid an overall toll of at least 159 people killed and at least 368 injured in the region by the quake, according to Italy’s prime minister.

And the death toll could rise as rescuers with sniffer dogs prepared to work through the night, checking house after house that had collapsed into mounds of dust and twisted metal.

At a four-floor apartment complex on the edge of town, two top floors appeared to be largely intact, but the second floor had lost its exterior walls, exposing a brass bed perched precariously in a child’s room. In the dining room next to it, a hanging ceiling lamp and a wall mirror were unscathed by the earthquake.

Renzi left town carrying two shopping bags of possessions that firefighters allowed him to retrieve. Yet just behind him in a devastated convent, rescuers with dogs searched through the rubble for seven women — four elderly women who had been spending their summer holiday there and three nuns who had been caring for them.

A section of the convent reserved exclusively for males appeared completely unscathed. The convent abuts the Church of the Most Holy Crucifix, where a sign outside recounts how the church was heavily damaged in earthquakes in 1639 and in the early 20th century.

Waiting for news outside with infinite patience was Pina Agostini, the daughter of one of the missing guests. Tanned from her own holiday on the Adriatic coast, Agostini said she felt the quake there herself and instantly thought of her 85-year-old mother, Gilda Morante.

“I called but no one was answering,” she said, surrounding by other family members of the elderly residents, all waiting for news. They had been sitting there since early morning.

“No, eh?” she called out as two rescue workers appeared.

She said her mother, a native of Amatrice who now lives in Rome, had been spending a restful holiday since July and would have come home after this weekend’s traditional festival.

People come to Amatrice for the folklore, the traditions and the food, especially pasta Amatriciana, featuring chewy bits of pork jowl, pecorino cheese and tomato sauce.

Posters advertising this year’s festival lined the dusty walls of the destroyed town, which had billed itself as among the most beautiful in Italy. One poster promised a procession of people wearing traditional costumes and showed a woman walking with a jug of water on her head.

In contrast to the violent destruction of the quake, the courtyard of the heavily damaged convent featured a bed of roses and a breathtaking view of a valley, where five horses placidly grazed.

One of the small, picturesque medieval towns decimated by Wednesday’s earthquake in central Italy was voted by the general public one of the country’s most beautiful only last year.

Amatrice is about 80 miles northeast of Rome and had a population of 2,650. It is part of a network of hilltop communities over a wide area that includes Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto in the agricultural regions of Umbria, Lazio and Marche, which are popular with vacationers. At least 35 people were killed in town when the magnitude-6.2 earthquake struck in the middle of the night.

Amatrice was filled with terracotta-coloured buildings and charming courtyards several hundred years old. It is known as the birthplace of spaghetti all’amatriciana, a pasta dish of pork cheek, pecorino cheese and tomato.

An annual festival celebrating the town’s namesake food was scheduled to take place this weekend during the height of tourist season in Italy.

The age of the buildings in the region area, along with their proximity to earthquake fault lines, makes them especially vulnerable to seismic activity.

Local media reports said that Amatrice’s 16th century clock tower remained frozen at 3.36am – the moment the tremor struck.

The whole village is levelled ... You can’t rebuild that history
Steve Audino, who has relatives living in Amatrice

Images from the scene now show devastation and ruin on a massive scale where there once stood traditional Italian architecture.

“Three quarters of the town is not there anymore,” Mayor Sergio Piorizzi told Italian state television shortly after the quake took place.

“The whole village is levelled,” said Steve Audino of Mebourne, Florida, whose parents are travelling in Italy and were able to reach family members who own a home in Amatrice.

“Those villages in the mountains are very high. They are hard to get to,” he said. “You are definitely in the real Italy when you are in that village.”

Audino said that his family members are safe but their home is destroyed. “You can’t rebuild that history,” he said.

More than 40 million foreign tourists visit Italy each year, and it has more Unesco World Heritage sites than any other country in the world.

None of these appeared to have been affected by Wednesday’s quake.