Emotional aftershocks in Italy

L’AQUILA, Italy — On a desolate road that leads to Fossa, a few miles from the epicenter of the earthquake that shook central Italy on Monday, a family sits on garden chairs outside their house. Two days after the panic, the Bonanni family is anything but calm.

The head of the family, Piero Bonanni, a 52-year-old businessman of noble lineage, stands up and walks to the entrance of his villa. Putting his finger on the iron gate he says, “my gate acts as my seismology machine. You can feel the vibration on the iron.”

Bonanni has been waiting for firefighters to come and assess his property. Only they can tell him whether it is safe enough for his family to go back inside.

When the Bonannis fled the earthquake on Monday, they left behind their 16th century apartment, and with it valuable Renaissance frescoes and countless memories. After the 6.3-magnitude earthquake destroyed that home in the center of L’Aquila, their house in the Fossa countryside became their only option. For now, the Bonannis live in a camper.

But Piero Bonanni considers himself lucky — everyone in his family survived the quake.
“All we thought about was saving our lives,” Bonanni said.

He still does not know the condition of his property in the center of L’Aquila. Firefighters sealed off the area where irreplaceable damage was done to multiple buildings, among them the Church of Santa Maria del Suffragio, an 18th century building that lost its dome when the quake hit. Throughout the Abruzzo region, the damage to art and ancient architecture is incalculable.

In the Italian town of Loreto Aprutino, a two-hour drive from the epicenter of the earthquake, the 12th century church of Santa Maria in Piano is intact. But the shadow of the catastrophe arrived in a coffin.

Inside was the body of 24-year-old Giuseppe Chiavaroli, who was visiting his girlfriend in L’Aquila the night of the quake.

Hiding their tears behind designer sunglasses, Chiavaroli’s friends mourned the tragic fate of a promising soccer player as the jersey-draped coffin was carried from the church into the piazza — where almost 2,000 people came to support the only family in town that was so painfully affected by the disaster.

Above the piazza, a Red Cross helicopter soared, heading west towards the valleys of Abruzzo, where close to 18,000 were left homeless, 1,500 were injured and 280 were killed by the sudden fury of nature. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called for a national day of mourning on Friday, April 10. The regions’ bishops and 100 priests will hold a funeral for 150 of the victims found under the wreckage over the past four days.

As the Italian government assesses the damage to both its people and its architecture, many are left wondering why so many modern apartments crumbled like cookies under the earth’s vibration. Most older buildings, some ancient like Bonanni’s, were able to withstand the impact long enough to give their owners time to escape.

Recent buildings like L’Aquila’s student dormitory, where six students lost their lives, were built with reinforced concrete and couldn’t withstand the earthquake. Paolo Stefanelli, president of the National Council of Engineers, said the difference lies in the materials.

In an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama, Stefanelli said reinforced concrete loses flexibility over time.

Fedora Quattrocchi of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, agreed.

“Armored concrete has a very limited lifespan, about 100 years,” she said in an interview with Italian national radio, Radio Uno. This means that apartment buildings from the 1950s and 1960s were already too old to withstand Monday’s earthquake, experts said.

Paradoxically, much older buildings constructed with techniques dating back to the Romans had higher odds of surviving. “They were built stone on stone, with arches and a wooden shingle,” Stefanelli said. “Such material can respond well to vibration.”

Public opinion in Italy speculates that Monday’s death toll also was a consequence of weak government and irresponsible contractors. Conventional wisdom now holds that building codes should be enforced during reconstruction — and not just in L’Aquila, which is still in the spotlight, but in the many towns that fall along Italy’s two main fault lines.

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