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Quake Kills 20 Children in Italy

Others remain trapped after the roof of a village school collapses. Two women die in their homes in the magnitude 5.4 temblor.

November 01, 2002|David Holley and Maria De Cristofaro | Times Staff Writers

ROME -- An earthquake knocked down the roof of a school in southern Italy on Thursday, killing at least 20 children and trapping dozens of others during a party to celebrate Halloween.

Two women also were killed in their homes in San Giuliano di Puglia, a medieval village of 1,195, about 50 miles northeast of Naples. The magnitude 5.4 quake struck at 11:33 a.m. The epicenter was reported to be in the nearby city of Campobasso.

About 50 people were initially trapped when part of the roof over the nursery and elementary school collapsed, authorities said. Rescuers said after nightfall that they could talk with two groups of buried children, who had ducked under benches for protection.

Some of them were later rescued, including six dust-covered children pulled out under floodlights and quickly sent to hospitals.

Onlookers applauded and called out, "Giovanni! Giovanni!" when one little boy was brought out on a stretcher.

"As soon as he came out he called me 'Papi' like he always does," Giovanni's father told state television, which didn't further identify the man. "I immediately saw he was in good condition. He told me there are many other children still alive, a little shocked but still alive, so the hope is still there that they can save more. I thank God for this gift he has given me."

Halloween has recently become popular in Italy, and some of the frightened relatives at the school had painted faces for the festivities. Children in costume also stood watching.

"We had organized those celebrations to exorcise the fear of the spirits. Instead, this morning, the terror came from the earth," one of the injured teachers, Luigina Vaccaro, said after being hospitalized. "There were indescribable moments when it seemed as though the earth met the sky."

The school, built in 1953, was near the village's historic center. Children up to the age of 14 attended the party, according to reports from the scene.

Many homes in the area were also reported damaged, with collapsed roofs, cracked walls or large chunks of plaster torn from ceilings. Stones from walls fell onto sidewalks and cars. At least 3,000 people in the region had to be evacuated.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi went to the scene to monitor rescue efforts.

Throughout the day and the night, workers scrambled over the rubble of the school, moving boulder-size slabs of broken concrete to search for survivors. Parents screamed out the names of their children from behind police lines. Some firefighters and residents dug through the rubble with their bare hands.

Some of the buried responded weakly to shouts from rescuers. About 40 people, including at least seven children, were admitted to the nearby Larino hospital, according to health service official Vincenzo D'Angelo.

"Most people are in a heavy state of shock, and the majority have only light injuries, mostly on their legs and arms," he said. "Only four or five people have some serious injuries like broken legs and arms or a concussion."

An unidentified mother, her daughter still trapped, told Italian state television that there had been a predawn foreshock.

After the main earthquake struck, she started to rush to the school, the woman said. "On my way ... I ran into our local priest, Don Ulisse, who asked what had happened," she said. "I told him about the children in the school and he said that he had told the town hall this morning not to send the children to school because of the temblor we felt this morning around 3 o'clock. Why did they send them to school?"

A woman with a medical drip in her arm being carried out of the school was also shown on Italian television. She started to cry when another woman embraced her. Other images showed a man carrying a child in his arms, and many women and old men crying.

A boy about 12 years old said: "They just pulled out my sister from the rubble. I think she is OK."

"Today was my free day," said a middle-aged teacher. "It's just by chance that I am not underneath there."

The shaking was felt across central and southern Italy and even in high-rise apartments in Croatia, across the Adriatic Sea. It was the strongest earthquake to hit Italy since 1997, when a magnitude 5.6 quake killed 11 people in north-central areas. In 1980, nearly 2,600 people died and 30,000 were left homeless when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit southern Italy.

The active Sicilian volcano, Mt. Etna, which began erupting again Sunday, was the site of a magnitude 3.7 earthquake Thursday, with no immediate reports of damage. The two quakes appeared to be unrelated, seismologists said.

"The two epicenters are very far away from each other, and the nature of the quakes are different," said Alessandro Amato of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome. "The Etna quake is caused by its volcanic activity, the magma underneath the volcano, which is certainly not the case with the Campobasso quake."

*

Holley reported from Moscow and De Cristofaro from Rome.

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