Earthquake Disaster in Italy 'One More Jolt and Everything Is Going to Collapse'

When they went to bed on Sunday night, the lives of L'Aquila's inhabitants were still normal. But catastrophe struck as they slept. The survivors of one of Italy's worst earthquakes in modern history are now in a state of shock, and nightmare scenes continue to unfold around them.

The sign marking the entrance into the charming city of L'Aquila collapsed just as abruptly early Monday morning as the walls of buildings inside. Before the tragic earthquake, this capital of Italy's central Abruzzo region was awakening to the beauty of spring: The almond trees were in full bloom, and the snow-capped Gran Sasso massif glittered on the horizon like an Italian Kilimanjaro. On Monday, though, there was only horror, helplessness and exhaustion.

Long lines of now homeless Italians could be seen wandering the streets, pulling battered suitcases behind them.

Some tried to hail a ride from passing cars, but that would have done them little good since the streets are jammed with a flood of vehicles in convoys bearing the insignia of the Italian Civil Protection Agency, the Red Cross and the Italian Interior Ministry, all of which were flooding the city with rescue equipment and relief supplies.

"Apparently half of the city's historic downtown area has been destroyed," says Nicoletta Giusti, 53, as she stands on the grass at a local sports complex, which she calls the "only safe place in the area." Giusti had abandoned her home: "Books fell from the shelves, our lamps came crashing down and everything fell out of the kitchen cupboards. We took the most essential things and headed for the streets."

"No one," she stresses, thought an earthquake like this could happen. "There had been a series of smaller quakes recently, so we thought some of the tension had somehow been released." Then she says: "Did you feel that? The earth just shook again."

It's a feeling one never forgets -- it's one that scars your body, marks every bone. Surrounding Giusti's family are rows of tents that have been set up by the Civil Protection Agency. People are stretched out on the lawn or making their way to the few places offering any shade. At the Red Cross tent, you can hear the repeated moaning of "Madonna, Madonna."

The scenes here envoke those of biblical destruction. One man carries his aging mother to the lawn of the sports complex. Another sick person wanders about -- eyes bulging broadly in shock. He is a patient from the psychiatric ward of the city's now-evacuated hospital.

Those in charge of on-site rescue operations are now putting the number of dead at 51, but news agencies are reporting figures that are twice as high. The number of people reported to have been left homeless in the region has climbed to 100,000.

Reports claim that a convent has collapsed in Paganica, a suburb of L'Aquila near the quake's epicenter, and that no one knows yet whether the nuns can be rescued. A radio journalist in Onna, an adjacent town of 100 inhabitants, has reported that 90 percent of the town's homes are lying in ruins.

A large number of the buildings that have been destroyed in L'Aquila are only 10-15 years old -- including the corner building across the street from the sports complex housing the Il Canguro pizzeria. The building's walls have been rattled completely out of its reinforced concrete skeleton.

"We always told ourselves that everything here would be able to withstand an earthquake," says Giusti, who is now too overwrought to show much emotion. "But it's obvious that they took cost-cutting shortcuts like using, I don't know, inferior cement or not enough steel."

Flashes of light bounce off a neo-baroque living-room mirror lying -- improbably undamaged -- in the ruins.

To approach the old part of the city by means of the Via Roma is like walking through a ghost town. There are no cars, no noise. A lonesome bird cries out above, and the diesel engines of a bulldozer rumble in the distance. All of a sudden, there is another aftershock -- it feels like a giant has stomped his foot down.

A glance around the Church of San Silvestro shows half of the houses damaged. Some are merely piles of dust, and the walls of many buildings bear the kind of holes you would see in a town that had fallen victim to artillery fire. The city's downtown area has been completely evacuated. "This is worse than it was in Umbria in 1997," says one rescue official. "One more jolt and everything's going to collapse. Don't go any further."