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Emotional aftershocks in Italy

As Italians mourn, experts say many modern buildings were too weak to withstand Monday's 6.3-magnitude earthquake.

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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