Italy earthquake death toll rises to 279

April 9, 2009 8:46:52 AM PDT
This quake ravaged medieval city took a limping step toward normalcy Thursday as some shopkeepers reopened for business, three days after a deadly earthquake made the historic center uninhabitable and halted nearly all economic activity. Premier Silvio Berlusconi said the death toll from Italy's worst quake in three decades had reached 279, including 20 children and teens. The government also has increased the sum allocated for emergency aid to euro100 million ($132.73 million) and Berlusconi said quake reconstruction will cost several billion euros.

Strong aftershocks overnight rattled residents - nearly 18,000 of whom are living in tent camps around the stricken region. An additional 10,000 have been put up in seaside hotels, out of the quake zone, and the Italian railway provided heated sleeping cars at L'Aquila's main train station, where nearly 700 people spent the night.

New activity was evident across the city, as pharmacies, grocery stores, butchers, and hardware stores began operating.

Antonio Nardecchia opened up his family's meat stall selling roasted chickens and sausages just outside the crumbled walls of L'Aquila's historic center. The 32-year-old said business was slow.

"We opened up today to try to sell some meat before it spoils," Nardecchia said. "I don't see much of a future. It is not like everything is going to start again tomorrow."

A bakery in a one-story cement block building was a testament to survival amid semi-collapsed houses.

Inside, Evelina Cruciani, 59, made sandwiches with thick slices of freshly-baked bread, ham and mozzarella cheese, and gave them to hungry aid workers or sold them to others less in need for euro3 a piece.

She also sold a seasonal specialty, small loaves of sweet bread traditionally eaten on Easter Sunday with salami. "We need to keep tradition alive," Cruciani said resolutely. "L'Aquila must not die."

Because of the bakery's sturdy construction, Cruciani has been able to keep the doors open ever since Monday's 6.3-magnitude temblor, while the owners baked bread in ovens at a facility nearby. On Thursday, the bakery got its first deliveries of fresh milk and yoghurt.

Not everyone was able to escape the predawn temblor with their wallets, meaning some in the tent cities needed to rely on aid until they could get access to their belongings or bank accounts.

Mobile post offices have been set up in every tent city to provide a means for the displaced victims to access their own accounts, pick up their pensions or receive money, especially from relatives who have emigrated abroad. People can also top off their cell phones.

Workers said several evacuees had inquired about paying their electricty and gas bills, for homes they could no longer access.

Officials have urged residents not to sleep in their homes - but some could not resist at least looking from outside to see if they could assess the damage.

At least one man, Giancarlo Rasti, persuaded the carabinieri to retrieve a computer containing his son's university thesis. The family was safely in nearby Teremo at the time of the quake, but 25-year-old Michele had a place in L'Aquila, where he studies engineering and is about to graduate.

"It was the most important object for him" Rastelli said. "It has all his data inside."

Anti-looting patrols have increased in the quake zone; some residents stayed in cars near their homes to keep watch all the same. Berlusconi on Wednesday said stiffer anti-looting measures would be introduced amid reports the problem was on the rise.

Two people were detained for suspected looting Wednesday in the flattened town of Onna, but were freed after proving to police the euro80,000 ($105,000) they had on them was theirs.

L'Aquila's police chief, Filippo Piritore, striding through the city on Thursday morning, said no arrests had been made in the city for looting, pointing to heavy police patrols. He said some people have been stopped who appeared to be intent on robbing unattended homes and other properties.

L'Aquila's medieval center has been completely closed to any traffic, making the center a ghost town.

The quake hit L'Aquila and several towns covering 230 square miles (600 square kilometers) in central Italy early Monday, leveling buildings and reducing entire blocks to piles of rubble.

Sixteen of the dead were children, Berlusconi said, and of the injured, 100 remained in serious condition.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano toured the quake area Thursday. He stopped at the collapsed student dorm in L'Aquila, visited the nearly leveled small town of Onna, and met with some of the homeless at tent camps. He also stopped at the hangar where the coffins of the victims are lined up before Friday's funeral.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a Holy Thursday Mass that included the traditional blessing of holy oils - some of which the church will send to the earthquake zone as a sign of closeness to the stricken population.

Benedict plans to tour the area sometime after the Easter holiday.

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