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Earthquake Survivors Recall Watching Their City Crumble

We asked three people who survived some of the worst earthquakes in recent Italian history to recall what it was like to be at the mercy of Mother Earth.
November 1, 2016, 4:10pm

The center of the town of Amatrice, after August 24, 2016. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A 6.6-magnitude earthquake struck Italy on Sunday, leaving more than 18,000 people homeless and 20 injured. The quake, which was centered near the Umbrian town of Norcia, comes after two more took place near Umbria's capital of Perugia on Wednesday. These recent earthquakes happened along the same fault lines as one in August that killed nearly 300 people.

According to experts, violent earthquakes such as the one that occurred in August create stresses, which are then redistributed across adjacent faults causing them to rupture in a domino effect. Italy is one of the most seismically active regions in Europe and the Mediterranean—in the last century, more than 30 earthquakes have shaken the country, with last week's being the strongest since 1980.

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We asked three people who survived some of the worst earthquakes in recent Italian history to recall what it was like to be at the mercy of Mother Earth.

Friuli, 1976

The Friuli earthquake (in the northeast of Italy) took place in May 1976, with a moment magnitude of 6.5. Up to 978 people were killed, 2,400 were injured, and 157,000 were left homeless. The main event was followed by some aftershocks in September of the same year.

On May 6, at around 9 PM, I was in my pajamas having dinner with my family in our apartment in Udine. I was studying for my final high school exams back then, so every night after dinner I would spend three hours studying in my room.

I had just sat down at my desk when the tremors started. I remember running in the living room, where my little brother was playing in the shadow of a huge library from which books were starting to fall. I came in just in time to prevent the heavy books from falling on him. We spent that night and the next sleeping in the family car with our mom. My father, who had spent years in an Indian prison and survived a Himalayan earthquake, refused to leave our house, so that's where he slept.

When the second tremor hit, I was in Udine's city center, stuck in traffic in my FIAT 500 Cabrio. It was hot, and the city was crowded. I felt the car shaking, so I looked up and saw the buildings trembling, too. A woman standing right next to my car lost her shit and started screaming. Parts of the town that were destroyed in that earthquake were rebuilt in the following years due to the superhuman efforts of the citizens—no thanks to the Italian government.

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- Fabio, 58

L'Aquila, 2009

On April 6, 2009, an earthquake of about 5.8 Richter destroyed the city of L'Acquila. It had been announced by a long series of tremors and was felt throughout central Italy. There were 309 casualties, and it has been rated the fifth most violent earthquake in recent Italian history.

Italians won't remember my name, but they may remember footage of my rescue, which was broadcast on April 6, 2009. Everyone on TV talked about a girl, who was still alive but trapped under the debris. I am that girl. It was only months after my rescue that I realized I'd become a symbol of hope for my city.

These days, I am a normal girl. I have a degree, a job, dreams, and anxieties. But when I was 24, I spent 23 hours under the pieces of my own apartment. I owe my life to the firefighters who worked 15 hours without break to free me. I lost a lot in that earthquake: clothes, shoes, books, my computer—but most important quite a few friends.

I have often thought about what happened, in an attempt to figure out whether there was a deeper meaning to my experience. I've concluded that I was given a second chance, which means I have to live life at the best of my abilities. That's what kept me from giving up despite the many grueling months of rehabilitation that I had to go through in order to be able to walk again. I lost my balance for a handful of seconds, and it took a lot of time, determination, and faith to find it again.

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- Marta, 31

Emilia, 2012

An 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck the Emilia-Romagna region on May 20, 2012. It was followed by a tremor that shook the entire northern part of the country, on May 29. Twenty-seven people lost their lives in these earthquakes.

I was asleep in my house in San Martino Spinto, not far from the city of Modena. I was lying on a mattress on the wooden floor, and I'd left the light on. All of a sudden, the light went out and the room started moving up and down, and side to side.

I stood up with my legs well spread in an attempt not to lose my balance. Everything was falling from the shelves. I thought, Fuck, I am going to die. Then I thought of opening the window, jumping on the platform roof, from there on a car, and finally on the ground. As I was about to open the window, it all stopped. So I ran down the stairs and out on the road, barefoot and in my underwear.

I ran to my parents' place—I have never run that fast in my whole life—and I found them out on the street, surrounded by a small crowd of neighbors. The first thing they asked me was, "Why are you only wearing your underwear? Aren't you cold?" In that tragic situation, they still remained my parents. Soon after, the sun rose, and we saw the consequences of the earthquake, which so far we had only felt.

It rained the following day, but thankfully it didn't rain anymore in the months that followed. For that time, I lived in a tent, while my parents lived in their car. My dad did not really sleep for the next 40 nights. He would lie down for a couple of hours every night but spent the rest of his time standing guard, in case of an aftershock. We would eat on the street under a beach umbrella, and once, my mother said, "Can you believe there are people that go to the seaside just to do exactly what we're doing now?"

- Tiziano, 48