Italians rush to help L'Aquila after earthquake

L’AQUILA, Italy — The five-story apartment building that stood at the entrance of this central Italian town no longer exists. Its roof is now a pile of debris and what was inside — including the inhabitants — is gone. The air smells of gas and burnt plastic. Ruptured pillars stick out like crooked spikes.

Amid the wreckage, firefighters doggedly search for survivors, shoving the pillars out of their way. They direct a crowd of journalists and residents to keep quiet. A rescue dog climbs on top of the rubble searching for signs of what firefighters think they may have heard: the cries of a little girl trapped underneath. The dog finds nothing.

It is 11 a.m. on Monday and a little more than eight hours since a 6.3-magnitude  earthquake violently woke L’Aquila and its residents, destroying thousands of buildings and leaving more than 100 dead. (According to more recent news reports, the death toll has passed 200.)

As the day wore on, the scene of destruction and death repeated throughout the city.

L’Aquila’s hospital, San Salvatore, was left without an emergency room. Hundreds of displaced patients were rushed to the hospital parking lot, where doctors frantically attended those injured by exploding glass.

A student dormitory lost its eastern wing, and students within it. The number of missing students was unknown late Monday evening. Luigi Alfonsi, 22, was among those able to escape through a hole in the stairs after the roof came tumbling down.

The quake was the biggest to hit Italy in three decades. The country lies on two fault lines that have previously caused grave damage throughout the south. In 1980, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 near Naples killed 3,000 people and left 30,000 homeless.

L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region, just 60 miles east of Rome, has been through this before. The medieval town, which dates to 1254, documented its first major earthquake in 1315. Another seismic shake in 1703 destroyed the town and the dome of the main basilica, which was rebuilt then and again after another devastating quake in the early 1900s.

Monday’s quake destroyed the dome once again. This time, no fewer than than 10,000 buildings were hit along with it.

From a distance, the city resembles a war zone. Massive holes have replaced century-old buildings, cracks have erupted along the street, and avenues are inundated with broken pipelines.

Officials reported that at least half of the 70,000 residents lost their homes. Protezione Civile, the Italian equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Red Cross set up three camps for evacuees. Inside dozens of tents pitched across the city’s main soccer field, volunteers served water, bread, pasta, eggs and even fresh mozzarella. Hundreds have found refuge here, but many more fled to neighboring towns that were less affected, or drove away from the earthquake-prone region.

The head of Protezione Civile, Guido Bertolaso, called the earthquake the worst tragedy of this millennium.

Nearly 24 hours after the quake, the firefighters were still digging. An orange light cast over the student dormitory gave the eery optical illusion of a cave rather than the four-story building that once stood there. Flashing blue lights from police cars and fire engines lit the way for the hundreds of volunteers from around the country that rushed to L’Aquila’s aid.

And just when everything would suggest that no one would be found alive, the rescuers set up a stretcher and prepared to pull out a survivor. Alas, after 90 minutes of delicate, strenuous work, they couldn’t do any more for the student buried within.

Multiple shock waves forced the firefighters to twice abandon the rubble in case of further collapse. Still, at nearly 2 a.m., they were going back inside to finish the job.

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