Earthquake in Italy: What It's Like When the Ground Moves

A damaged house is seen after an earthquake hits the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, Italy, August 22. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "Killer Quake" on May 17, 1976. In light of the recent earthquake that hit Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, Italy, Newsweek is republishing the story.

Midway through a science-fiction film called "La Citta Verra Distrutta all'Alba" ("The City Shall Be Destroyed at Dawn"), the movie house in the northeastern Italian town of Buia began to shake. Panicky townspeople were still pouring into the streets when the main shock hit. In neighboring Maiano, 60-year-old Paolo Riva and his wife fell to the ground hugging each other. "There came a roar such as I never want to hear again," Riva said. "I thought they dropped the atom bomb." The great bronze bell of Sts. Peter and Paul Church came crashing down, crushing a young girl. Nearby a restaurant collapsed, burying 10 people alive. More than 700 persons were killed in Buai, Maiano and a score of neighboring villages last week, and at least 2,000 more were injured by one of the strongest earthquakes to hit Italy.

With the final death toll likely to climb past 1,000, last week's earthquake was the worst to hit Europe since 1,100 died in Skopje, Yugoslavia, in 1963. The quake registered 6.5 on the Richter scale (the Guatemalan earthquake that claimed 22,000 lives in February hit 7.5), and was centered near the Italian town of Udine not far from the Yugoslav border. No deaths or major damage were reported outside Italy, but tremors were felt in at least seven other countries. In Brussels, apartment-dwellers fled into the streets when their high-rise buildings began to shake. The fire department in Munich was swamped with calls. Tremors also shook the 800-year-old leaning tower of Pisa, and the 325-foot bell tower in St. Mark's Square in Venice swayed. Neither historic structure suffered damage.

Most of the devastation occurred in villages along the Tagliamento River, which flows from the eastern Alps into the Adriatic near Venice. The medieval hilltop town of Gemona was hardest hit by the quake. From Gemona, Newsweek's Loren Jenkins filed this report:

The center of this ancient town looked like it had been bombed from the air. Centuries-old buildings of stone and red tiles had collapsed into the winding, hilly streets, and the twelfth-century steeple of the Church of San Giovanni had crumbled. Only the sixteenth-century Palazzo Comunale, with its Venetian arches, survived unscathed. "This was a beautiful town, a historic town, my town," muttered one dazed merchant. "It has now been destroyed."

Stunned townspeople gathered in the Piazza del Municipio—some of them sobbing, others staring into space. An ambulance driver arrived, and a frantic woman in a beige sweater rushed up to him. "What has happened to the Monettis?" she demanded. "Have you any news of the Sanbuccas?" The red-eyed driver only shook his head in reply.

Down the hill, soldiers with handkerchiefs tied across their faces against the dust clawed at the rubble of the Trattoria Blanc. Three customers were in the bar when the quake struck; the owner's wife and two children were in the family quarters above. By Saturday noon, the bodies of one customers and an eleven-month-old child had been recovered. The owner, Mario Zamaro, pawed through the wreckage of what had been a bedroom—and as he picked up his wife's dresses, tears streamed down his cheeks.

At the Gemona cemetery, ambulances continued to arrive every fifteen minutes with more bodies. One of the open coffins contained a small girl, perhaps 6 years old, clutching a blond doll.

As tremors continued into the weekend, the top of one 2,100-foot mountain started slipping downward. Italian soldiers hastily evacuated the village of Portis-di-Venzone, which stood in the path of the huge rock slide. They also threw up tents in vineyards to house the thousands of homeless victims. With the ground continuing to shake, many survivors whose homes had not been destroyed chose to remain in tents anyway. "I want to stay here in the fields," said one villager. "At least here, I'm safe."

Earthquake in Italy: What It's Like When the Ground Moves | World