Rescuers’ hopes were dashed when they touched the small, cold leg protruding from a mountain of debris in the quake-ruined village of Pescara del Tronto, in Italy. Clearly, the little girl, Giulia Rinaldo, was dead.
But not all hope was lost. As they dug, the rescue crew could see that entwined in the eight-year-old child’s arms was her four-year-old sister, Giorgia, still breathing. “They were lying embraced under the rubble,” one of the rescuers recounted. “We heard a moan and realised she was alive.”
Many more were not so lucky. As of yesterday at the time of print, the death toll from Wednesday’s earthquake that ravaged a string of formerly postcard-perfect Italian villages was 291, with hundreds more hurt.
For the 5,000-strong rescue force, the digging out had by then become a harvest of death, with corpses unearthed at every turn.
Onlookers sobbed in recognition as bodies were lifted from the crumbled wreckage.
As hundreds of aftershocks rumbled through the quake zone, about 135km northeast of Rome, rescue teams dodged falling debris, and bleary-eyed survivors settled in for a second night in the open air. More than 1,200 people were sheltering in tents, cars and camping trailers, afraid to go indoors.
The earthquake, with a preliminary magnitude of 6.2, reduced hundreds of structures – some of them historic homes and churches that had stood for centuries – to monumental heaps of rubble and dust. Despite the devastation, rescuers pressed ahead.
“We want to believe there are still people alive under there,” said firefighter Danilo Dionisi, whose team in the village of Pescara del Tronto unearthed the entwined Rinaldo sisters on Wednesday night after their frantic parents showed where to dig for them.
In far-flung corners of Italy, people paid tribute to quake victims. Flags flew at half-mast, and the culture ministry said all proceeds from public museums on Sunday would be donated to restoration efforts.
As clouds of cloying white dust kicked up by the quake began to settle, the first in a round of expected finger-pointing began. Prosecutors launched an investigation of “culpable disaster” in earthquake preparations.
Italy’s last major earthquake, which hit in 2009 about 80km south of the current quake zone, killed about 300 people and set off questions over unsafe buildings and other safety issues.
Pescara del Tronto, once one of the region’s beauty spots, bore the full brunt of the quake’s fury, with nearly four dozen inhabitants killed as fallen homes cascaded down steep, narrow streets. The village, flanked by fragrant fig trees, was transformed into little more than a dusty scar in the greenery, patrolled by soldiers and sifted through by firefighters.
The devastation could be seen everywhere — one home left standing while another fell, often depending on the building standards used.
One survivor, Bruno Filotei, rushed out of his home when the quake hit — just in time to see his mother’s house just across the street collapse, killing her.
“My house was new … . That’s the difference,” he said, distraught.
Local landmarks were unrecognisable. “This was once a road, I think,” a volunteer said, studying the rubble like an archaeologist.
In the nearby town of Accumoli, a church steeple toppled onto an adjacent home, killing a family of four.
Governments of European countries, meanwhile, sought to account for missing nationals who had been working or on holiday in the idyllic Apennine Mountains at the height of the summer tourist season. Romania said that five of its citizens died in the quake and that nearly a dozen others were unaccounted for, and Spain reported the death of at least one Spanish national.
Dionisi, the firefighter whose team rescued Giorgia, told of another heartening save, also within hours of the quake. Two brothers, four-year-old Samuele and seven-year-old Leone, were trapped when the roof of their house partly collapsed. It was a delicate rescue; the boys were shielded by toppled beams, with enough air to breathe, but they became frightened as rescue efforts dragged on.
“I freed Samuele, but it took a long time to get Leone out,” Dionisi said. To comfort and distract the little boy, the rescuers promised him a ride on their fire engine when he got out. Soon after, they plucked him to safety.
Such uplifting outcomes were in painfully short supply. Italian news focused on one particularly wrenching case: the death of an 18-month-old girl whose mother had moved away from the area after living through the lethal 2009 quake in L’Aquila.
The infant, identified as Marisol Piermarini, was killed as she slept in the family’s vacation home in Arquata del Tronto, in the heart of the quake zone. Her mother again survived.