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Archive for Saturday, November 2, 2002

Quake death toll hits 29

Italy mourns first-grade class lost in disaster

November 2, 2002

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— The earthquake that toppled a school in this tiny Italian mountain village killed nearly the entire first-grade class. Authorities said the death toll had climbed to 29 and no more bodies were in the rubble.

As emergency crews grimly searched the debris of Thursday's quake using cranes, sledgehammers, blowtorches and their bare hands, the south-central Molise region was jolted by several aftershocks. One measured 5.3 nearly as powerful as the 5.4 quake that destroyed the school, officials said.

The new quakes caused at least three injuries and sent panicked residents into the streets, where many were treated for shock. It was not clear if any buildings were damaged. As a precaution, authorities ordered all remaining residents of the town to leave, state TV reported from the scene.

Just before dawn, a 9-year-old boy named Angelo was rescued from the school, police said, the last survivor of Thursday's quake. Rescuers pulled several more bodies out later Friday, including two they mistakenly believed were alive.

Fire Chief Mario Morcone said the final death toll was 29, including 26 children and one teacher in the school and two elderly women who were killed when their homes collapsed.

A rescue worker, in hard hat and covered with dust, said most of the older students were crushed at their desks as the roof crashed down upon them.

"A huge tragedy leaves us with only one certainty. It looks like the first grade class was wiped out," said a local priest, the Rev. Ferdinando Manna.

However, one first-grade girl, 7-year-old Veronica, told reporters Friday from the hospital that she had survived by hiding under a desk.

The quake struck the Campobasso area, 50 miles northeast of Naples, at 11:33 a.m. Thursday. San Giuliano di Puglia, a village of 1,195 people, was hardest hit.

There were 56 students, four teachers and two janitors in the yellow school at the time, officials said. Some of the students were gathered in the garden to celebrate Halloween, an increasingly popular holiday in Italy.

"I was told I had lost all of my nine first-grade pupils," said teacher Clementina Simone, who was pulled from the rubble. "I wanted to go back and help, but the rescuers wouldn't let me."

When the town ran out of child-sized caskets, the small bodies were placed into adult-sized mahogany coffins. A sports complex became a makeshift morgue.

At dawn, emergency crews halted work to listen for sounds from the rubble, but heard nothing. In the hours after the collapse, faint voices had been heard, and rescuers worked furiously to reach the victims. The last survivor, the 9-year-old boy, was pulled out at 3:54 a.m.

Pope John Paul II, appearing at his window overlooking St. Peter's Square, offered prayers for the victims and encouragement to survivors and the rescue crews.

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