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Italy’s Quakes Causing Stress

October 16, 1997

ASSISI, Italy (AP) _ Sharp, unrelenting aftershocks nearly three weeks after back-to-back quakes are gnawing away at people’s nerves in the lush hills of central Italy.

Newspapers call the phenomenon the ``silent monster,″ or compare it to recurring malaria. Stress has become the daily bread of residents who have grown ultra-sensitive to the slightest tremor. Another strong aftershock _ with a 4.1-magnitude _ jolted the region again today.

Authorities have yet to emerge from a crisis mode, and most thoughts of rebuilding are far in the future.

``We’re leaving to find some calm,″ said Fiorella Tardioli, 37, whose husband’s family has lived in Assisi for 200 years. Their 18th-century palazzo was severely damaged: cracks spider-web their way down the walls and a tiny crevasse has formed in their kitchen floor.

``The house won’t fall down, but we can’t live with the anxiety,″ she said.

The pair of quakes on Sept. 26, centered in an area just east of Assisi, hit with a magnitude of 5.5 and 5.8. Ten people were killed, and the area’s cultural riches were devastated _ from anonymous medieval towers to ancient country churches to the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, one of Italy’s major Christian shrines.

Tens of thousands of people fled their homes _ many of them destroyed _ for tents and campers. They saw the cultural references of generations deeply wounded.

But it didn’t end there.

Slight tremors continued for days. Then a week after the quakes, another destructive shock hit. Oct. 7 brought another, followed by one Sunday and then another Tuesday. All were above magnitude 5, said Massimo Cocco, a seismologist at the National Geophysical Institute in Rome. All aggravated damage to buildings and monuments and sent more people in search of shelter.

Tuesday’s quake was felt in much of central and southern Italy, but worst of all in Sellano, about 20 miles southeast of Assisi.

The township’s medieval center was heavily destroyed. The city hall tower collapsed. Only half the church tower remains. One two-story building lost most of its upper front wall. Rubble lay in the streets. Virtually every building had major cracks.

``One day, you have everything, you are the master,″ said Antonio Antonini, 48, a woodworker who lost his house and business. ``Then you are nothing, and you have nothing.″

As he stood with a dozen dejected residents near the crushed town that once was home to 300 people, he planted his feet wide apart. ``Do you feel it? The earth is vibrating.″ Several times, Antonini interrupted himself to point out a tremor.

Today’s quake also was centered near Sellano and woke people up as far as Rome, 110 miles away. There were no immediate reports of damage.

Italian seismologists say the pattern is typical for the central-northern Appenine mountain area: a moderate earthquake, followed by weeks, if not months, of aftershocks, some relatively strong. There is no predicting the end.

California quakes typically follow the same pattern. Several aftershocks followed the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, including a magnitude 5.6 quake on the same day and two more of magnitude 5.0 within two weeks. Although most of them are too weak to notice, the Northridge quake’s aftershocks continue to this day.

The recent earthquake activity in Italy is concentrated in a band east of Assisi, about 18 miles long and roughly running north from Nocera Umbra southeast toward Colfiorito.

``It’s a region with a large quantity of faults, so it’s easier for energy to be released in a large number of small aftershocks,″ said Francesco Ponziani, a seismologist at the earthquake observatory in the regional capital, Perugia. Instruments have recorded more than 3,000 aftershocks since Sept. 26.

When one fault releases energy, it passes on the stress to a nearby fault, bringing on another tremor, Cocco said. That also accounts for the changing epicenters.

The relentless aftershocks can break even the toughest of those in this mountainous, cold region that breeds a patient, hardy character.

Maurizio Orbi, a 35-year-old Assisi policeman, said he took the tremors in stride until Sunday’s shock.

``I stayed cool, but for the first time I felt my legs trembling″ with fear, he said. ``You want it to finish so you can start again and get on with your life.″

After each shock, hospitals report great numbers of people coming to their emergency rooms with panic attacks.

``If I’m sitting or lying down, my own pulse scares me. I wonder if it’s another earthquake,″ said Alan Feltus, an American painter who has lived in the hills outside Assisi for 10 years.

The roar of a truck or a blast of wind can be unnerving.

Dark circles under Mrs. Tardioli’s eyes and lingering nausea attest to her jumpy nerves. ``Above all, we don’t sleep. If I hear a noise, I jump immediately,″ she said. Her family has found a small, free-standing house in a village nearby.

``The stress is continuous these days,″ she said.

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