‘Miraculous’ escape but thousands forced flee after major earthquake hits tremor-prone Italy again

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 8:18pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 8:19pm

Italy was counting the cost on Thursday after another major earthquake forced thousands to flee their homes in terror but “miraculously” did not cause any fatalities.

Two months after a quake left nearly 300 dead in the country’s tremor-prone central spine, two powerful shocks ripped through the mountainous, sparsely-populated region on Wednesday evening.

Despite numerous building collapses, no deaths had been reported by midday, more than 17 hours after the first of the 5.5 and 6.1 magnitude tremors.

Given the strength of the shocks the absence of any deaths or serious injuries, which we hope will be confirmed, is miraculous
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano

“Given the strength of the shocks the absence of any deaths or serious injuries, which we hope will be confirmed, is miraculous,” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.

The national civil protection agency described the damage as “very significant” but said they were not aware of anyone trapped under rubble. Rescue workers began a major clean-up operation and hundreds of families were unsure where they would be living for the forseeable future.

More than 100 aftershocks rattled the area through the night after the initial two were felt in Rome, some 175km away from the epicentres.

Marco Rinaldi, mayor of the village of Ussita, described “apocalyptic” scenes. “People were in the streets screaming. Many houses have collapsed. Our town is finished,” he said.

“I’ve felt a lot of earthquakes but that was the strongest I’ve ever felt. Fortunately everyone had already left their homes after the first quake so I don’t think anyone was hurt.”

One 70-year-old man was reported to have died of a heart attack in nearby Tolentino but that may have been coincidental. Even in Rome, some people took to the streets as a precautionary measure, underlining lingering jitters after the summer disaster.

Wednesday’s tremors struck an area just to the north of Amatrice, the mountain town which was partially razed by the August quake and suffered the bulk of the fatalities.

The epicentres were near the village of Visso, located on the edge of the region of Marche close to the border with Umbria. Across the region, hospitals, a university residence, a retirement home and even a prison had to be evacuated.

A top flight football match between Pescara and Atalanta was suspended after the first shock and schools were closed Thursday across the region to allow structural safety checks to be carried out.

The civil protection agency is planning to reopen tent camps set up after the August earthquake but they will only provide a temporary solution as winter approaches.

Many mountain villages in the area are located at over 600 metres altitude and overnight temperatures will soon be falling below freezing.

Italy’s national geophysics institute said the latest quakes were linked to the August one, which was followed by thousands of aftershocks, some of them very strong.

“Aftershocks can last for a long time, sometimes for months,” geologist Mario Tozzi said.

People were in the streets screaming. Many houses have collapsed. Our town is finished
Marco Rinaldi, mayor of Ussita

Visso’s mayor Giuliano Pazzaglini said two thirds of the buildings in his village had been left unusable.

It’s historic centre was taped off on Thursday morning, barring pensioner Massimo Testa from going back to what remains of the 15th Century house he and his wife had lovingly renovated.

“We only just had enough time to get out after the second shock before the house collapsed,” he told AFP with tears in his eyes. “My wife was petrified, she could see masonry falling around her. Thank God we are still alive, that is the most important thing.”

Bulldozers were working to clear one of the village’s main access roads, which was blocked by the collapsed facade of a building. The village church was partially destroyed, its bell tower still standing but bearing large fissures. A civil protection drone buzzed overhead taking pictures of the devastation.

August’s disaster caused an estimated four billion euros (US$4.5 billion) of damage and some 1,400 people made homeless are still living in temporary accommodation.

The impact of that quake was magnified because it took place at the height of the summer holiday season, when many normally barely occupied villages were packed with tourists and families returning to ancestral homes.