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Sicilian earthquake recalled

The aftermath of the earthquake in Montevago and Gibellina. Photo: Frank Attard.

The aftermath of the earthquake in Montevago and Gibellina. Photo: Frank Attard.

Veteran photographer Frank Attard recently went to Gibellina in Sicily, a town he had last visited over 41 years ago following a devastating earthquake. He had last seen it as a huge mound of rubble. He now found the town had been rebuilt some 18 kilometres away and the old one turned into a monument in the form of a vast expanse of white cement. When Mr Attard produced the photographs he had taken at the time to the local council he was welcomed like a long lost son by the city officials. He was asked to leave copies, bearing his name, of the photos of the ruins at the town's museum. John A. Mizzi recalls the drama of those days and brings the story up to the highly unusual present.

In January 1968, I was the news editor of The Times of Malta and together with Frank Attard was with the Royal Navy teams from Malta who were the first to reach the earthquake-devastated region of Valle del Belice (Valley of the Belice River) in western Sicily.

On the afternoon of January 14 the ground shook and the inhabitants of the towns and villages, mostly farming communities in one of the poorest regions of the provinces of Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento, sought refuge in the open countryside. When the violent seismic activity registered 6.7 on the Richter scale, and in places 7 at about 3.05 next morning, there was utter destruction.

This was the worst earthquake since the disaster of Messina and Calabria in 1908 when 160,000 were killed. The death toll this time was about 370, with over a thousand injured. But 70,000 had lost their home and their livelihood. There was little left of the towns of Gibellina, Montevago, Poggio Reale, Santa Margherita del Belice, Partanna, Salemi, Santa Ninfa, Salaparuta, Menfi and Camporeale.

The first tremors had given warning on the afternoon of Sunday, January 14. The tremors continued with increasing intensity until in the early hours of Monday when the entire area subsided violently.

As soon as the news of the earthquake reached Malta, the Save the Children Fund started collecting clothes, baby food and money. Other organisations appealed for clothes and other items, such as blankets and even brooms. The government opened a fund and sent medical supplies by air to Trapani.

The 108th Minesweeping Flotilla under Comdr I.W. Powie sailed from Malta with tents, blankets, clothes and medical supplies and medical teams from Bighi Naval Hospital.

Mr Attard and I flew to Palermo where the airport was almost deserted. We were picked up by the British Vice-Consul, Harry Evans and taken to a hotel in the city.

We were up early next morning when Mr Evans came in his car to drive us to the Belice Valley. It was bitterly cold and raining hard and there was a mist which made our progress slow, also because of the damaged and blocked roads.

At about midday we stopped with a valley below us, dimly visible through the rain, with mountains in the distance. Then we realised that the whiter patch clinging to the nearest hill was the ruins of an entire town, later identified as Gibellina, which had a population of just over 6,000 - there was not a building standing and the ruins seemed to hang precariously to the steep side of the hill.

There were only ghosts - I say this literally as right below us most of the memorials in the cemetery lay smashed, and the graves open with coffins protruding. We arrived at Montevago, the epicentre, at dusk, and were welcomed by the Royal Navy which had quickly set up a kind of administration as none of the local officials had shown any initiative to do so.

When we walked past the crowded tents which the sailors had set up and where large family groups were now huddled round open fires to keep warm we had not yet realised that the mound of rubble nearby was in fact the outskirts of Montevago.

As we climbed over stones, furniture, doors, windows and even buried cars we were able to see, in the fading light, that before us lay a vast panorama of destruction.

We slept in camp-beds and were up early next morning to walk to the town. The sight that met our eyes defied description - not a single house was standing and we scaled up mounds of stones to reach what had been a piazza.

The Royal Navy had brought over boxes with clothes from Malta. These were opened in the square. The villagers came, inspected the clothes and put them back in the pile. When I asked why no one had taken any, I was told: "We do not want discarded items. We want new ones." And there they remained, by the time we left, in the rain and mud. More boxes sent via Syracuse never arrived. The communist mayor of Montevago a few days later disappeared with all the money that had been sent from Malta.

When it appeared that the Royal Navy was preparing to leave and would be taking back the tents, one night we went to sleep to wake up next morning to find that the tents and their occupants had stealthily disappeared in the dead of night.

In the early 1980s, the mayor, Senatore Lodovico Corroa, who had been in office at the time of the earthquake and was to serve till 1994, had a vision - to design a new Gibellina replete with modern architecture and modern art, with wide open spaces featuring innumerable large monuments by prominent Italian artists.

This took five years to realise and in the end created a city with no relation between its different parts and totally alien to the traditional architecture of Sicily. At the same time the ruins of old Gibellina have in a way been retained, the artist Alberto Burri enfolding the buildings and streets in waist high white concrete in a symbolic funereal blanket.

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