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Peter Bills: Living in life's aftershocks

He knew the terror it foretold and understood that death was probably inevitable. But that wasn't the hardest part of the nightmare for Italian rugby man Marco Molina.

The marketing and communications official for L'Aquila Rugby Club had been awoken by the rumbling noise as it intensified every second. He knew what it meant -- there had been several thousand foreshocks which told of impending disaster since December 2008.

L'Aquila, high up in the Apennine mountains of central Italy and capital of the Abruzzo region, was no stranger to earthquakes: the last major one, in 1703, had killed around 5,000 people. Even so, Molina was terrified, principally for his young sons.

"It was 3.30am and the bed was dancing on the floor. I knew -- there had been warning quakes. But it was still impossible to imagine this. In our apartment block, where we live on the third floor, the staircase collapsed first. So there was no way out. We had to wait, to hold on and just hope we would be alive when it ended," he said.

"I was ready to die. I thought to myself 'I am 40; I have had a good life. It is not important for me to live. But how can my sons, Massimo aged six and Ricardo aged three, die . . . they are much too young to die'."

The electricity was cut, the water supply destroyed. And the building, in complete darkness, was swaying. All around there were screams and the sound of crashing.

"The earthquake lasted one minute, 32 seconds and we were trapped. But the apartment block moved for 12 to 13 minutes. When it stopped, we started to climb down over the broken building."

He added: "When I got out of my house with my wife and my sons, it was like 'Apocalypse Now'. There was a strange yellow light, a fog of dust, pieces of wall laying broken in the street, people saying nothing. And the street kept moving from the aftershocks because the quake is like a wave."

In Molina's block, a neighbour, an elderly lady of 70, died. Just 100 metres away in a nearby street, 30 perished. Just 300 metres further on, another 54 died in the street. Death and destruction lay all around, like a cloth over the shattered ruins.

Even 100 kilometres away, such as in Rome, the earthquake could be felt. Tommaso Cantalini, another L'Aquila Rugby Club man, remembers: "I was at home asleep in Avezzano, near the club's training camp. We were woken up, we felt it and knew what it was. My house was not badly damaged, only little problems. But when I came to L'Aquila that first time I could not believe the damage. It was terrible."

Today, nine months after the earthquake, L'Aquila is a haunting, desolate, empty place. It is as though almost all life has been sucked from it. Lost dogs, sitting around or standing still . . . peering intently, as if bemused, and searching for something, offer a hauntingly melancholic image of a town that died. They were once owned by those who were either killed or moved out by the disaster.

As the authorities in Haiti declared an official end to the search for survivors of a quake that measured seven on the Richter scale, with the aftershock at 6.1, I walked through the shattered streets of L'Aquila.

L'Aquila's quake measured 6.3 on the moment magnitude scale (5.8 on the Richter) with aftershocks measured at 5.3 and 4.8. The deaths in Italy nine months ago in no way compared with the widespread disaster of Haiti: 300 killed by the earthquake at L'Aquila, with another estimated 800 dying subsequently, compared to possibly 200,000 in the central Caribbean island.

But if ever you wanted to understand just a smidgen of the cost in both human and financial terms of these earthquakes, then L'Aquila serves as a brutal illustration of what the citizens and authorities in Haiti must now confront.

They will need the kind of courage and commitment to the community which members of the L'Aquila Rugby Club demonstrated that night and continue to do.

Strong young men, the survivors who were living in the town, like current players Lorenzo Bocchini and Dario Pallotta, rushed to the local hospital to help. But fate had not saved even those charged with caring for the dying and injured: a new wing at the hospital, built only in 2000 and supposedly designed as earthquake proof, suffered massive damage and was closed.

Pallotta (25) told his tale. "Just after the quake everyone ran outside to escape the crumbling buildings. As we all made for the square, I heard a woman's voice calling for help. She was trapped inside her house. The collapsed staircase had blocked the front door, so I had to knock it down. The pipes were severed and the place was wet, with a dreadful smell of gas. I found an old lady there with her husband and lifted them in turn onto my shoulder to carry them outside.

"I then heard that help was needed at the main hospital, where some of the floors were about to collapse. We spread the word among our team-mates and rushed to the spot. We helped evacuate the patients and the necessary equipment. A new field hospital was then set up in a nearby field.

Shattered

"Our stadium became a huge camp to host evacuees. We were exhausted and absolutely shattered, but nobody wanted to leave. Of course we could feel the aftershocks -- there were several. But we stayed to do everything we could to help."

We drive to the centre of what was once the beautiful Italian town. It is now cordoned off. Firstly, it remains dangerous and secondly, the long, arduous task of reconstruction has at last begun. Alas, it is like the tiniest trickle of a stream that must one day be a mighty, flowing river. At this juncture, it is impossible to imagine how long it will take to rebuild shattered L'Aquila.

We clamber over a hastily erected barrier forbidding entry to outsiders, and walk down through the trees to a children's playground. Here, too, is another unbearably melancholic sight. Empty swings lay still. Climbing frames are beginning to rust, peering down upon weeds growing through the soft tarmac. The silence is deafening; nothing can lift the pall of gloom over this place: it is like a ghost town.

Stacked against a park bench, like the grotesque remains of a previous life, stand four skis which were pulled from the apartment building behind the play area.

Here, promising young L'Aquila rugby prop Lorenzo Sebastiani lost his life, one of 10 who died as their five-storey apartment block collapsed. The only reminder of it is the jagged, broken walls little more than head high, testimony to the total collapse of the building. And lined up close by are the wrecked cars of those residents, destroyed by the crashing masonry.

I pick up a ski pole beside the bench, abandoned like so much else in this grim, desolate place. There is no noise here, and yet it shouts and screams of death, of disaster.

Up in the town square, the scene of devastation is much worse. The Basilicas of 'Saint Bernardino of Siena' and the 13th century, 'Di Santa Maria di Collemaggio' are badly damaged. The dome of the church of 'Anime Sante' in the Piazza Duomo, has collapsed. The Porta Napoli, oldest of the centuries old gates that led into the town centre, has been destroyed. The Cathedral is badly damaged.

The life has fled this town, as if spirited away by nature's evil. The dogs can lie safe in the roads of the town square, scratching and wondering; no traffic, except for the occasional military vehicle, now moves here.

All the buildings, the shops and cafes where once people sat, talked and lived life, are shuttered, closed. Windows are cracked, chunks of plaster litter the street, water from broken mains trickles, like the blood of the dead and injured, down the gutters.

L'Aquila team captain Maurizio Zaffiri said: "The city is destroyed, but what we have now is a very big pride. After it had happened, all the citizens of L'Aquila wanted the rugby team to restart its matches. It was very important for us and our collective spirit and was seen as a little step forward."

How much damage was done to rugby in Italy as a whole? Is there a sense of comradeship between L'Aquila and the other clubs?

Zaffiri is not a man who has smiled very much these past nine months. But he grinned and said: "We have very big solidarity from everywhere. That has been very good for us, a big comfort. The spirit of Italian rugby has been shown."

Most of the little side-streets running off the main square remain closed off, large chunks of wood and steel scaffolding propping up walls and buildings. Signs hang off buildings at crazy angles, each one a threat to any bystander. Just about every building is damaged to varying degrees of severity.

One cafe has re-opened for business in the old centre. Natalia Nurzia's abode, busy with emergency workers, represents the spirit of old L'Aquila. There are chunks of plaster still hanging off the walls, as if some gunfight had been staged there. But a sign written on a cardboard sheet proudly proclaims 'Earthquake April 6 2009. Re-opened December 8. We were the first to open'.

Natalia Nurzia comes around the bar to greet us. The L'Aquila rugby men are popular here and a warm welcome awaits their friends. The family of the Italian captain Sergio Parisse came from this town.

Natalia smiles. "For you," she says, handing me a bar of the cafe's famous, own produced chocolate bar. The gesture is simple, humbling. Even in their anguish these people continue to give.

Around the fringes of the old town centre, the human cost is greatest. Whole apartment blocks, damaged and condemned, have metal barriers wrapped around them awaiting demolition. A school lies empty, similarly condemned, as is the Justice Ministry building. Among the rubble from one wrecked block, lay two footballs. In the ruined street, a students' building was shattered, left looking like it had suffered shell fire. Several died here.

Pinned to the metal barriers are dying, decaying bunches of flowers, memorials to the dead. And behind this shattered, tragic town, snow-covered and darkened in the dying light of a cold winter's afternoon, stand the mountains of the Apennines.

They took the dead to hastily converted buildings that had survived, the shocked survivors to fields close by. There, thousands of tents were procured and erected, to try and cope with 40,000 of the 65,000 made homeless. The smart, modern L'Aquila rugby stadium on the edge of the town was commandeered for such use. The playing area was covered in shale, temporary toilets and washing facilities were arranged. Today, the tents have gone but the ground remains a mess.

When the dust had settled, the shock to humans subsided, the recriminations began. They continue to this day, many concerning allegedly poor construction of apartment blocks. "In California, an earthquake of this size would not have killed a single person," said Franco Barberi, from Italy's Civil Protection Agency.

Massimo Cialente, Deputy Mayor of L'Aquila, said: "The EU has not given us enough help. We are at the centre of economic necessity and consequently should receive enough aid.

"It is as if we were in a corridor on a bicycle and needed help to push off, to get going. This push is missing at the moment and what is more, we need European help for strategic projects of precise development, like mountain tourism, high-tech industries and courses with sufficient finance."

It can be only the most tentative of cost estimate figures. But the initial estimated amount suggested to repair L'Aquila and its environs is €17bn. But having suffered the event, what advice would L'Aquila's Deputy Mayor give the anguished authorities of Haiti?

"There are three aspects," he said.

"One: In the places where we have built, we have learned that each area of ground has its own earth characteristics. That means in certain places we can construct but not in others. So one must adapt techniques according to the particular case.

"Two: Today, one must construct using Japanese methods as their buildings have the capacity to resist big earthquakes.

"Three: Embrace these new techniques, do not re-construct in the old way. These methods are new to Italians and we can learn much about how to consolidate our ancient, historical buildings. This is a big maintenance operation on our masterpieces."

A slate grey sky hangs like a dark, forbidding curtain, over this scene of sorrow. L'Aquila is now into its 10th month since the earthquake of April 6, 2009 yet you sense much of the shock still remains. It's painfully apparent that there are nowhere near enough workers even to begin to make serious inroads into the gargantuan task of re-construction.

Meanwhile, the pain of the living goes on. What is the biggest difficulty L'Aquila has faced since the disaster, I ask Molina? "At the start, it was hardest for the elderly. Many had lost relatives, friends and their homes. Many who survived the earthquake gave up and died in the months afterwards, of depression, of broken hearts.

"But now, it is the young who suffer so much. They have no life; nowhere to go to for fun, nothing to do. The young people from 13 to 17 have many problems. So life is damaged, it's very hard."

Irish Independent