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Mud Slides Kill 55 in Italy

May 7, 1998

SARNO, Italy (AP) _ Caked in mud up to her knees, Maria Grazia Salvatur reflected on her grim task as she waded through rivers of slowly solidifying sludge looking for human figures.

``The worst thing is seeing the relatives crying in despair,″ said the 20-year-old volunteer, adding that she had pulled two dead children from the debris Thursday but no survivors.

Nearly six inches of rain fell Monday and Tuesday, triggering torrents of mud and water that rocketed through the heavily populated region’s narrow streets. At least 55 people were killed in a 35-mile stretch between Naples and Salerno, and scores remained missing.

RAI state television, without citing a source, reported Thursday evening that as many as 218 people were missing _ a number nearly double the Civil Protection Ministry’s count of 125 people unaccounted for. At least 1,600 people were homeless.

``The possibility of finding more people still alive is weak, even though hope is the last to die,″ said Andrea Todisco, Italy’s civil defense chief.

The sun shone brightly Thursday, but the heat only baked the soupy mix of mud, water and debris into brick-hard rivers of mud. That, in turn, made rescue work even more backbreaking.

``It’s more difficult today because you need to be stronger to dig. Yesterday it was like quicksand. Today you can almost walk on it,″ Salvatur said.

Dogs trained to sniff out avalanche victims were brought in to help the 3,000 firefighters, police and soldiers who struggled to dig the towns out from under the disaster.

A day later, rescue crews were still using military helicopters and ladders to pluck the stranded off rooftops.

A man in Episcopio, one of six towns at the base of 3,600-foot Mount Sarno, wept Thursday as he reported that his family of four, including an 8-year-old child, was missing.

In Sarno, the hardest-hit town, one leg of a chair and a light blue umbrella stuck up from the mud. Rescuers freed 30 people trapped in homes or cars Thursday and found 10 bodies. In all, 44 people died in the deluge here.

Alberto Montuori, 41, recalled how a mud slide barreled toward him as he was driving home Tuesday evening.

``I turned the corner and all of sudden a river of mud came toward me and it buried most of the cars in front of me,″ Montuori said. ``There must have been at least 10 cars, and we pulled out only four people so there must be more people under there.″

Montuori managed to rescue his wife and two children from their home, where mud smashed in a first-floor wall, flooding the living room with yard-high sludge.

The mud also swept through Sarno’s cemetery, churning up human remains and coffins.

New landslides thundered down Thursday, cutting the road between Sarno and Bracigliano, six miles away, in two separate places.

``It was a movement of notable dimensions, probably triggered by infiltrations of some underground springs,″ said geologist Francesco Stefanelli.

Authorities warned of the danger of disease. The waters of the Sarno River ``are an open sewer,″ Todisco said, declaring tap water undrinkable.

About 200 of the homeless were living in Sarno’s elementary school, where workers placed plastic plates of meat and peas and cups of water and wine on school desks for a makeshift dinner Thursday night.

It was a disaster waiting to happen, according a section of a 12-volume infrastructure report to Parliament last month that was unearthed Thursday by Italian media.

A government-appointed scientific committee said the combination of mountainous and volcanic terrain, occasional heavy rainfall, poor urban planning and lack of maintenance created a risk of disaster in the Campania region surrounding Naples.

Officials have also blamed southern Italy’s common but long-denounced practice of building houses without permits.

Todisco said many homes had been built too close to rivers or in areas prone to landslides. The construction also stripped hillsides of vegetation that held the earth.

Despite Italy’s promise of $29 million in emergency aid, many people were upset with the government for what they saw as its lack of preparation and its slow response to the disaster. Some Sarno residents screamed in anger outside the civil defense office, the ANSA news agency reported.

But others were ready to shoulder some of the blame.

``It’s the fault of all of us, because we destroyed nature, we burned forests to build houses,″ said Francesco Amato, a Sarno gardener who carried his family to safety on his shoulders.

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