AMATRICE, Italy — Last-minute preparations for this charming little hilltop town’s annual pasta festival were well underway when the earthquake struck.
The classic Amatriciana recipe (bits of pork, pecorino cheese, and tomato), which put Amatrice on the global culinary itinerary, has been celebrated here for generations. But this weekend’s party is now canceled, and, in truth, the spaghetti festival may never be held again.
GALLERY: Scenes From the Quake That Rattled Central Italy (PHOTOS)
“The town is gone,” said the mayor. “Wiped off the map.”
A 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck at 3:36 a.m. on Wednesday, stopping everything in its tracks. On the ancient bell tower, which was left standing, the time is forever engraved in the ruined clock face.
Around the clock tower, whole neighborhoods of brightly painted houses lay in ruins and dust and debris filled the town squares. As the sun rose among the hills, survivors were pulled from the wreckage amid continued aftershocks.
By Wednesday evening, the death toll in the region had reached 120.
For hours after the initial quake and strong aftershocks, people used their bare hands to dig out their friends and neighbors.
I watched one rescue attempt where neighbors tried to describe the bedroom of their friend to rescue workers—it was notional, there was nothing to see but debris. The workers plunged into it with garden tools and a farmer’s tractor while they waited for heavy lifting equipment and further help to arrive. Hours later they pulled out a sheet and covered the remains of the person they’d tried to save.
More than 15 hours after the first impact, I watched rescuers still at it, frantically searching this time for four people they thought might be alive. Again, the search ended in vain.
Agostino Severo, who was in nearby Illica when the quake struck, said the scene before him did not belong on this earth. “We came out to the piazza, and it looked like Dante’s Inferno. People crying for help, help,” he told a reporter for The Independent.
The epicenter was here in Amatrice, which is home to around 2,000 people, on the border between Lazio and Umbria about 100 miles from Rome. The tremors were felt as far away as Rome, where thousands of people, myself included, were shaken from their beds, awakened in terror, but alive.
Here in Amatrice, many were not so fortunate.
One woman, who was sitting in front of the remains of her home, said she still didn’t know if her loved ones had survived. “It was one of the most beautiful towns of Italy and now there’s nothing left,” she told the Associated Press. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Confirmed victims in Amatrice and the surrounding hilltop towns reportedly included a baby girl who was just 9 months old, an 18-month-old toddler, and at least two other young children in the town of Accumoli.
In Illica, Guido Bordo, 69, said his sister and her husband had been trapped when their vacation home collapsed. “There’s no sound from them, we only heard their cats,” he told Agence France-Presse. “I wasn’t here, as soon as the quake happened, I rushed here. They managed to pull my sister’s children out, they’re in hospital now.”
As the official death toll rose throughout the day, rumors that the number would double or even triple started to swirl in Amatrice. And as each new number was confirmed, people were left with the lingering question, “Why is this happening again?”
In 2009, an earthquake of similar size and scope hit nearby L’Aquila, killing more than 300 people and nearly sending seven scientists to prison for not predicting it. They were eventually acquitted, but they and the survivors, who lost everything and everyone who was important to them, still feel there’s been no justice. The problem is not science, the problem is organization, and government, and irresponsibility.
So here we are again in an earthquake zone where some buildings stand tall and others are piles of stones. Back in 2009, regulations were put in place to ensure that every house over 100 years old was brought up to code in terms of seismic readiness. Obviously that didn’t work—at all.
Pope Francis, who sent a team of six firemen from the Vatican to help in the search-and-rescue effort, interrupted his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square to address the tragedy.
“To hear the mayor of Amatrice say his village no longer exists, and knowing that there are children among the victims, is very upsetting for me,” he said.
Back here, Antonio Ricci, 68, could not fathom what had just happened.
He had returned to the town two days ago for the first time in more than 50 years, then his family home collapsed and he barely escaped from the wreckage.
“I can’t figure out if this is a message from above that I’ve got to do something,” he told me. “Or a warning never to come back.”