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Amid pieces of medieval city, a frantic search for life

Quake in Italy kills about 150, injures 1,500

Residents of L'Aquila returned to the ruins of their home yesterday. Some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Residents of L'Aquila returned to the ruins of their home yesterday. Some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. (marco di lauro/getty images)
By Marta Falconi
Associated Press / April 7, 2009
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L'AQUILA, Italy - Rescue workers using their bare hands and buckets searched frantically for students believed buried in a wrecked dormitory after Italy's deadliest quake in nearly three decades struck this medieval city before dawn yesterday, killing more than 150 people, injuring 1,500, and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

The 6.3-magnitude earthquake buckled both ancient and modern buildings in and around L'Aquila, snuggled in a valley surrounded by the snowcapped Apennines' tallest peaks.

It also took a severe toll on the centuries-old castles and churches in the mountain stronghold dating from the Middle Ages, and the Culture Ministry drew up a list of landmarks that were damaged, including collapsed bell towers and cupolas.

The quake, centered near L'Aquila, about 70 miles northeast of Rome, struck at 3:32 a.m., followed by more than a dozen aftershocks.

Firefighters with dogs and a crane worked feverishly to reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a dormitory of the University of L'Aquila, where a half-dozen students were believed to be trapped inside.

Relatives and friends of the missing stood wrapped in blankets or huddled under umbrellas in the rain as rescuers found pieces of furniture, photographs, wallets and diaries, but none of the missing. The body of a male student was found during the daylight hours.

Another student, Luigi Alfonsi, said "we managed to come down with other students but we had to sneak through a hole in the stairs as the whole floor came down." Alfonsi, 22, his eyes filling with tears and his hands trembling, said "I was in bed - it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me."

Elsewhere in town, firefighters reported pulling a 21-year-old woman and a 22-year-old-man from a pancaked five-story apartment building where many students had rented flats.

Amid aftershocks, survivors hugged one another, prayed quietly or tried to call relatives. Residents covered in dust pushed carts of clothes and blankets.

Slabs of walls, twisted steel supports, furniture and wire fences were strewn in the streets, and gray dust was everywhere. A body lay on the sidewalk, covered by a white sheet.

Some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, officials said. L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said about 100,000 people were homeless. It was not clear whether his estimate included surrounding towns.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi said in a TV interview that more than 150 people were killed and more than 1,500 were injured. He declared a state of emergency, freeing federal funds for the disaster, and canceled a trip to Russia.

The quake hit 26 towns and cities around L'Aquila. Castelnuovo, a hamlet of about 300 people southeast of L'Aquila, appeared hard hit, with five confirmed dead. Onno, population 250, was almost leveled.

Pope Benedict XVI prayed "for the victims, in particular for children." Condolences poured in from around the world, including from President Obama.

Parts of L'Aquila's main hospital were evacuated due to the risk of collapse, and only two operating rooms were in use. Bloodied victims waited in corridors or a courtyard, and many were being treated in the open. A field hospital was being set up.

Though not a major tourist destination like Rome, Venice or Florence, L'Aquila boasts ancient fortifications and tombs of saints.

Many Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance landmarks were damaged, including part of the red-and-white stone basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. The church houses the tomb of its founder, Pope Celestine V - a 13th-century hermit and saint who was the only pontiff to resign.

The bell tower of the 16th-century San Bernardino church and the cupola of the Baroque Sant'Agostino church also fell, the ministry said. Stones tumbled down from the city's cathedral, which was rebuilt after a 1703 earthquake.

"The damage is more serious than we can imagine," said Giuseppe Proietti, a Culture Ministry official. "The historic center of L'Aquila has been devastated."