AMATRICE, Italy — If you have ever felt the heart-stopping tremor of an earthquake, you know well that the initial jolt is just the beginning. What follows is almost always a relentless cascade of aftershocks, which can feel something like a scary amusement park ride that has short-circuited and that no one seems to know how to stop.
That’s what’s happening in central Italy right now, where a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck at 3:36 a.m. on Wednesday but doesn’t seem to have any intention of stopping.
At last count, 279 bodies have been pulled out of the rubble. There is still no count of how many people are still missing—the area was full of visitors and tourists—and hope of finding survivors diminishes by the hour.
It’s impossible to know how many people caught in collapsed buildings after the first massive quake died later because they were crushed in subsequent tremors.
More than 1,000 aftershocks shook the area in the initial 48 hours after the quake, many of them causing far more damage than the first tremor. The U.S. Geological Survey suggested that, given the size and scope of Wednesday’s quake, those aftershocks could continue for weeks or even months to come.
Along the winding, narrow road through the mountainside, the ruins from earthquakes in the 17th and 18th century serve as a haunting reminder of this region’s fraught relationship with Mother Earth. Early records show that exactly one month after those initial quakes struck, an even larger earthquake devastated the area.
In Saletta, a hamlet of 20 homes on the outskirts of Amatrice, one of the few buildings left standing was prefabricated temporary housing erected when a quake in 1979 destroyed several homes. Back then, the aftershocks lasted for three full months.
After surveying the devastation and staying through the hundreds and hundreds of aftershocks that have rattled the area since Wednesday, it is hard for me to imagine how anyone’s nerves could take much more.
What makes the aftershocks even worse than the original earthquake for survivors is that the first time around, they didn’t know it was coming. But with aftershocks, it is a waiting game, trying to guess if the barking dogs or sporadic gusts of winds herald the tremors, or if they are merely a bizarre and frequent coincidence.
What makes it worse still is that aftershocks vary. Some, like the one that knocked down a building I happened to be standing in front of during a broadcast report for CNN, were low rumbling rolls, as if someone was moving floorboards in opposite directions.
Others, like the 4.8 level aftershock that knocked out a vital bridge on the main access road near this epicenter city at around 6:30 a.m. on Friday are sharp and violent, as if the floor boards are being broken in half while you are standing in the middle.
Of course, the obvious thing to do during an earthquake event is to get the out of the affected area as quickly as possible. But often that is impossible for simple logistical reasons, whether because there is nowhere to go or because you are a rescue worker or journalist.
For rescue workers, the aftershocks are life-threatening. Any movement of rubble when you are standing on it looking for survivors could make you a victim yourself.
For journalists and others, the aftershocks simply change the landscape as the rubble resettles, and it is hard not to spend the time between aftershocks focused on when the next one is coming. But, moments of calm are, in their way, worse.
One studies piles of rubble, trying to find in them recognizable pieces of familiar objects or trying to figure out how a car that was surely inside a garage ended up on top of what remains of the garage, or whether the corner of a bed protruding from between heavy stones still has someone in it.
All natural disasters share similar traits. The initial chaos gives way to an overwhelming need for order and introspection.
In Saletta, civil protection workers picked up litter left by first responders, which seemed entirely unnecessary given the state of the disaster area. One worker explained to me that order gives people comfort. “Even though there are signs of destruction all around, what can be ordered must be ordered immediately to calm the citizens,” he said. “They will focus on the neat rows and stacked boxes instead of the chaos behind them. Their minds will search out something that seems normal when everything around them is anything but.”
On the third day of the quake, we were reporting from what had obviously been someone’s quite lovely, orderly estate. It had a familiar feeling, as if I had been there before. Tomatoes were just ripening up against a stone wall on one side of a freshly mowed lawn. Rosemary, thyme, and sage grew in carefully manicured bushes. Butterflies and bees dipped in and out of bright orange pumpkin flowers.
In fact, it was much better to focus on the botanical wonders than turn around and look at the rubble the other side of the yard, where a two-story house had collapsed on the family car. There, pink and red geraniums in flowerboxes seemed to hang, suspended in air on a balcony railing that had no balcony or building attached to it.
Even worse than the vegetable garden was the area in between. It was littered with surgical gloves, some spotted with blood. A cardboard box with stacks of white fabric had been cast aside in one corner. I suddenly remembered where I had seen this garden. This was the area where recovery crews stacked the 22 victims found in the neighboring houses in the initial hours after the quake. This lovely garden with its ripe tomatoes had been the temporary morgue and the box was full of body bags.
Throughout our time in the garden, a big white dog, some sort of shepherd, I guess, wandered in and out of the area, stopping and sniffing. He rested comfortably by the fence where the gate used to be. He was disheveled and his coat was covered in burrs. Civil Protection officers fed him and gave him water, and we tried our best to keep him company. Our video journalist worked to pick some of the burrs from his coat. He had, most likely, forever lost his people in the collapsed house, but the garden was clearly his. He seemed a living ghost.
And as the hours passed, people came back to the area who didn’t have to be there. In a little enclave with just 20 houses, 22 people died. But survivors and friends and families of the victims came to look at the rubble. They hugged. They cried. Some were accompanied by firefighters who tried to help them get to anything that might be important for whatever reason. To them, each aftershock brought them straight back to 3:36 a.m. on Wednesday. To them, the aftershocks are not a scary event, but a relentless and inexplicable torture.
A few hours after the quake shook the area, a man dressed in green pajamas and wrapped in the sheets from his bed looked up at the sky and yelled, “Basta!” or “Enough!” and then cried, “Leave us alone!”
A short time later, the earth shook once again.