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When a tsunami hit Malta in 1908

A dramatic interpretation of the 1908 earthquake disaster at Messina

A dramatic interpretation of the 1908 earthquake disaster at Messina

The headlines have been dominated lately by the massive tsunami that devastated parts of Asia. But anyone who thinks that such danger is limited to that part of the world or that the death toll was an absolute record is way off the mark.

Here's an extract from a news item which appeared in The Daily Malta Chronicle of December 29, 1908.

"At about a quarter to eight (yesterday) the sea became strangely agitated. Thinking of the earthquake which had occurred some three hours before, one was inclined to conclude that the convulsion of the earth had been submarine and not far distant from us.

"The seabed appeared to be casting violently off the superincumbent mass of water and driving it to the shore. The Grand Harbour is protected by the breakwater; the tidal wave rushed unchecked into the Marsamuscetto harbour.

"In the creeks the agitation was great. In Misida creek the waters dashed right over the confining barriers and rushed up to, and into, the houses and shops by the shores.

"From the early morning it continued until after 4 p.m. People trembled at first to witness that which was taking place. After rising over the land, the waters receded and left the seabed bare near the shore, fish was picked up wriggling in the sand seeking to get back to their own element".

This tsunami was caused by the earthquake that hit the Straits of Messina on December 28 and that levelled Messina and Reggio di Calabria. Because of the seismic activity in the area, Sicily and Calabria are referred to as la terra ballerina - the dancing land.

The death toll was high reaching close to 200,000 because of two main factors: the extent of the quake - 7.5 according to today's Richter scale and the fact that it happened at about 5.20 a.m. when most people were indoors. The resulting tsunami triggered 40-foot waves.

The intensity of the earthquake was felt in Malta. This is how The Daily Malta Chronicle reported that massive jolt.

"The seismograph at the university (of Malta) was thrown out of gear by the violence of its (the earthquake's) own action. The trouble of the earth lasted an hour-and-a-half".

Maltese doctors, nurses and priests went to the stricken area with the assistance of the Royal Navy. The Chronicle reported also that besides the Ambulance Corps, a section of a field bakery for the baking of bread on the spot was despatched by sea together with 5,000 bags of flour.

For those who believe that one's destiny is already written in the stars, here's a twist to the story.

About 850 survivors had left Italy to start a new life in America on board the cargo ship Florida. Sailing through thick fog, the Florida collided with the luxury passenger liner Republic and three of the earthquake survivors were killed instantly.

The Japanese term tsunami means harbour wave. Tsunamis are not tidal waves and are not connected with tides. They result from a sudden vertical offset in the ocean floor sparked by earthquakes, underwater landslides and volcanic deformation.

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