2 Novembre 2002

Residents Evacuate From Italian Town

Residents Evacuate From Italian Town

SAN GIULIANO DI PUGLIA, Italy — Residents of this remote southern village spent the night huddled in blankets in a tent city, fearing aftershocks from an earthquake that leveled a school and killed 29 people, almost all of them children.

Traumatized locals suffered a mild aftershock before dawn Saturday, a day after two strong aftershocks — one registering 5.3 magnitude — rumbled through town, sending grieving, panic-stricken residents into the streets.

Friday`s temblors prompted authorities to evacuate everyone from the town center to a tent city erected on a sports field, where residents set bonfires and bundled themselves in blankets to keep warm.

Crews extracted the last body from the rubble of the school Friday.

With the final death toll at 29, attention turned to whether shoddy construction in a quake-prone zone was to blame. The school was one of the few buildings destroyed by Thursday`s magnitude 5.4 quake, and 26 children inside were killed.

Illegal construction is rampant in southern Italy, and prosecutors opened an investigation Friday into the collapse of the school. Two of the three adults who died were elderly women killed in their homes, and the third was a teacher.

Civil protection officials were set to meet Saturday to discuss risks in the region. More than 3,000 people across several towns in the area remained homeless.

This remote, tight-knit community of fewer than 1,200 people is composed largely of farmers producing olive oil, and many felt that a large part of the next generation had been wiped out.

“In this moment more than in any other, you can`t express your sadness,“ said 69-year-old Matteo Campanelli, who lost four grandchildren to the earthquake. “They were children. Let`s hope that the angels embrace them.“

He spoke at the entrance of a gymnasium outside the crumbled town center that had been converted into a morgue, where families wailed near open caskets.

In most coffins, the children had been covered. But a few blackened, lifeless faces peeked out above photos, basketballs and soccer jerseys. Some children were placed in larger mahogany coffins because the small, white wooden ones had run out.

Funeral services for the dead were scheduled for Sunday.

“All these babies are dead,“ Campanelli said. “Let`s say they went in their sleep. There were two or three moments — they wouldn`t have realized.“

The school was reduced to a pile of stone and bent metal littered with “Puss N` Boots“ books, an “E.T.“ pencil case, backpacks and a sneaker.

Crews trying to extract the final corpses scurried off the heap of rubble when the aftershocks rumbled through town. But they returned to remove the final body, that of a teacher credited with saving several children.

“She`s a hero. She pushed all her children out and then the building collapsed on her,“ said Stefan De Mistura, a former U.N. official and the head of the Italian Red Cross. “She was shouting for the children to go out.“

A teacher who survived, Clementina Simone, said she was giving her students a geography lesson about earthquakes that occurred in Sicily near Mt. Etna, which began spewing ash and lava Sunday, when the quake hit.

“I was told I had lost all of my nine first-grade pupils,“ Simone said. “I wanted to go back and help, but the rescuers wouldn`t let me.“

One first-grade girl, 7-year-old Veronica, told reporters from the hospital Friday that she had survived by hiding under a desk.

Pope John Paul II, appearing at his studio window overlooking St. Peter`s Square at the Vatican, offered prayers for the victims.

With the last body removed, attention shifted to why the 50-year-old yellow complex, which housed a nursery, elementary and middle school, collapsed while other buildings remained standing.

The ANSA news agency reported that a second story had been added to the original structure in recent years, and that heavy cement was applied to the structure to try to reinforce it in renovations two years ago.

The last time authorities updated quake plans for the region, San Giuliano di Puglia was not considered at-risk for strong earthquakes, engineer Enzo De Crescio told private TG5 television. The school, he said, did not meet earthquake safety standards.

Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, said the region should be considered at-risk, and urged residents to demand their mayors designate it that way.

A consumer protection group, Codacons, said it had launched a campaign for safety in schools a few months ago in the area hit by Thursday`s temblor. It said its nationwide survey of school buildings had found that 27 percent of buildings needed urgent work and that many schools lacked escape plans.
 

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