This morning Italy experienced yet another earthquake. Hardest hit were towns 80 to 100 miles northeast of Rome in the areas of Umbria, Lazio and Marche. So far the authorities have reported 73 dead but this number will certainly rise. The Mayor of one of the towns stated that half the town has been destroyed.
In 1980 I was in Southern Italy on a planned business trip when the Irpinia earthquake hit. I called my boss to report that there had been a serious earthquake in the town I was to visit and asked if I should cancel my trip. He said “No. Stick to the schedule.” Hours later I arrived at the town. No TV or video shots can describe what you see and feel for real. House after house, street after street were covered in rubble. The thing that still sticks in my mind today were the strands of electrical wiring hanging down from the remains of the houses like octopus arms.
Many of the older Italian houses are built of mortar in the old Roman style and not reinforced to withstand earthquakes. The hotel I was booked into had escaped damage due to its modern construction and was full of displaced locals. I felt that I was an unwelcome stranger imposing on their very private grief. Dozens were dead; dozens were still missing and all were grief-stricken and in shock. The worst part of it was that the local people knew from experience that there was a great chance of aftershocks. Sometimes the aftershocks can be weaker but there is always the chance that they can be as strong or stronger than the initial quake. This was an area close to the Appenines, a mountain spine running down the length of Italy. The locals spoke about a wind that always followed the earthquakes and was a portent of more quakes to come and, indeed, there was a wind that seemed to serve as a reminder of our precarious position.
I was the only fool dumb enough to retire to a hotel bedroom, which happened to be on the 7th floor, and I never slept a wink. A strange, fluky wind rattled the shutters intermittently, a repeated reminder of the risk of more quakes. Around 3:00am I went downstairs. Fear plays with your mind and affects one physically and the ride down in the elevator left me feeling physically sick. When I reached the lobby I found it full of people, guests and locals, sleeping on the furniture and floor.
There were, luckily, no further aftershocks and I was one of the few hotel guests who was able to leave the area and within about 30 miles find safety elsewhere but my thoughts remained with the inhabitants of the town, many of whom had nowhere to go and no supplies until emergency help arrived.
I will never forget how I felt as an uninvited stranger in their midst, witnessing a macabre act playing out before me. It was a sobering experience and one I don’t wish on anybody. My boss called me later that day and congratulated me on my ‘perseverance’ but I could say nothing. My work and my job were unimportant in comparison to the human drama laid out before me.
My thoughts go today to the people affected by the earthquake this morning, wishing them the strength and fortitude to find their way out of their current circumstances.