107 years ago, on January 13, 1915, one of the biggest earthquakes in the Italian history shook the Marsica area in the Province of L’Aquila in Abruzzo. The tremors lasted about 20-30 seconds and had a magnitude of 6.7 (Mercalli intensity of XI, or Extreme). The epicentre was located in the town of Avezzano which was completely destroyed.

Almost 30,000 people were killed in this huge catastrophe. In the city of Avezzano alone, out of a total of 13,000 inhabitants, 10,000 were dead, 2,000 injured.

Ruins of a church in Avezzano, 1915

This is how some survivors described the horrific Avezzano earthquake of 1915 (from the town hall’s website):

“I was in Avezzano waiting for the train coming from Celano that was to take me to Tagliacozzo and then to Rome. It was 7.25 exactly. A few minutes later a terrible roar was heard as a great thud, far away at first and then gradually approaching. Meanwhile the earth began to shake. It was no longer possible to stand up. I jumped out of the stop shed and to the middle of the railway line and walked like a drunk in that short stretch. As soon as I got out of the shed, it collapsed. I was saved by a miracle. This seemed to signal the collapse of all the buildings at the station and beyond.”

“Nicolino Berardi worked as a carrier and this morning he went to the stable, having been asked by a traveler to take him to Massa d’Albe. At around 7.00 – he said – we left Avezzano. We had just left the city when suddenly the horse, which had previously stopped, unusually ramping up the ground, again refused to continue. At the same time, we heard a loud rumble. The traveler believed it was the noise of the train; but a spectacle of terror presented itself to us. In the place where we stopped, there were gravel quarries to the right and left of the road which, as if moved by an invisible, huge pickaxe, began to collapse. A moment later the enormous roar produced by the collapse of buildings enveloped in a great cloud of dust reached us. A child, naked, was running towards us crying and frightened, begged us to go and help his father dig through the ruins in a nearby house, where some of the family were buried surprised by the disaster as they were getting out of bed. We rushed in, but while we were about to do our work, a second earthquake occurred that made us run.”

After the earthquake, 1915

“For a moment, I did not realize exactly what had happened; at first I assumed it was a sudden collapse of the same factory where I was employed. Catastrophe, perhaps, occurred due to an explosion of some machinery. I could not have known what terrible catastrophe struck the delightful Avezzano, so peaceful and full of life. My left leg hurt, but that didn’t stop me from dragging myself out into the open. As soon as I was out in the open, my ears were tormented by a thousand of screams. I looked at Avezzano and thought it was a horrible dream. The castle, the factories with high chimneys, the church with its artistic bell tower, all had disappeared, Avezzano had disappeared and in its place only a few walls could be seen.”

abruzzo earthquake 1915
Avezzano, 1915

Earthquake aftermath

The military arrived only 48 hours after the tremors and set up a camp trying to help the few survivors. Later, the centre of Avezzano developed from those numerous shacks and tents.

In 1915, Avezzano and the small villages in the Marsica area didn’t have good roads, that’s why it took so long for the Army to arrive. Many isolated villages, such as Pagliara di Castellafiume, were reached reached more than a month after the earthquake. “The 48 hours that followed the Avezzano earthquake of 1915 were a tragedy within a tragedy, which no history book can convey in its entirety, ” explained to a local newspaper Giovanbattista Pitoni, a local history enthusiast whose father survived the horrific earthquake. “A few hours after the earthquake the snow began to fall. After the condemnation from the earth, another seemed to have come directly from heaven. The few survivors became victims of the freezing temperatures, surrounded by snow and with no shelter. They didn’t have anything to eat. My father told me that for 3-4 days they ate only apples. Near the railway station stood a big warehouse where apples from the nearby orchards were stored, to be later transported by train to Rome. Knowing this, some survivors arrived at the station, dug through the rubble with their bare hands and found numerous crates of apples. Thus, for 4 days, they survived by eating only those.”

Avezzano, 1915

Last house standing

Every single building in Avezzano was destroyed, except one: the two-story house number 54, in the city centre, on Via Garibaldi. It still stands there. At the entrance door there is a modest plaque that says: “The only house that withstood the earthquake of 13-1-1915.”

The only building in Avezzano that survived the earthquake of 1915

The house was built in 1910, on what used to be the outskirts of the city. The engineer who constructed it was one of the first experts of reinforced concrete. Seismologists and engineers from all over the world have studied this humble building to understand how it remained intact during an earthquake of such magnitude. They concluded that it was the spiral staircase going from the basement to the second floor which saved the building from collapse. Its helicoid structure absorbed the seismic waves in 1915 leaving the building with no damage whatsoever. Today, the building is a national monument and the great grandson of the civil engineer who built it lives there.

See some historical footage of the Avezzano earthquake of 1915 aftermath in the documentary below.

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