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Mud Slides Kill 91 in Italy

May 8, 1998

QUINDICI, Italy (AP) _ Rescuers today pulled more bodies and at least one survivor from homes and cars engulfed in mudslides in southern Italy as the death toll in the disaster rose to at least 91.

Firefighters in Sarno, one of several towns largely buried under mud, found a 22-year-old man alive at the base of a well near his house and hoisted him up on a stretcher to a hovering helicopter. Found next to the survivor, whose condition was not immediately described, was the body of his father, RAI state television reported.

After rescuing Roberto Rubustelli, the firefighters dug out a nearby house, where they found the body of a local police official with his arms around his dead 13-year-old son, the ANSA news agency reported.

The TV report said there were unconfirmed reports rescuers had found two other survivors.

Another body was recovered elsewhere in Sarno in the evening, said civil defense officials in Rome.

The young man’s rescue was the first miracle story near the end of a day dogged by difficulties.

Clouds of choking dust, sent up from rivers of baking mud, stretched as far as the eye could see, hampering efforts to dig for the missing _ whose numbers varied wildly from about 100 to more than double that.

``The biggest problem right now is the dust, because it creates respiratory problems and makes seeing difficult,″ said Quindici’s head doctor, Mario Siniscalchi, who complained of a shortage of masks for rescue workers. ``The dust is slowing down rescue efforts enormously.″

Days after torrential rains unleashed massive landslides across a heavily populated area south and east of Naples, rescue crews were losing hope of finding living victims.

``There still might be a few lucky survivors, trapped in air bubbles in the mud, or within undamaged structures,″ civil defense official Roberto Malisan said in Sarno. ``But the more hours (that) pass, the more hope fades.″

In this small town 80 miles east of Naples, a mound of cars on a main road lay crushed on top of each other, swept away by a raging mud torrent Tuesday night. Some of the cars were buried and it was impossible to tell if people were inside.

``There is no way to tell how many people are still lost,″ said civil defense coordinator Gaetano Simonetti, whose crews found eight bodies today.

He said the top priority around Quindici now was clearing roads to reach outlying homes, but rescue workers were hampered by a lack of supplies, like trucks.

In a sign of the fury and force of the onslaught, five homes in one part of town were completely swept away, leaving only a forlorn red roof.

Forty U.S. Navy engineers arrived today in Lauro, the next town over, to build a tent city for Italian rescuers at an old factory site.

More than 3,000 firefighters, police and soldiers were deployed in rescue work through six towns at the base of Mount Sarno, a 3,600-foot peak 20 miles southeast of Naples.

Even as rescue crews dug through the avalanches of mud, some people started returning home. On the main street in Quindici, the mud was up to the door knobs and families worked to dig through to their front doors.

The mood, at times, was ugly.

``Unfortunately, the residents are very agitated,″ Simonetti said. ``Instead of helping us out, they are breathing down our necks, complaining we aren’t helping them clean out their homes.″

Police arrested eight looters in Sarno on Thursday. Plainclothes agents were deployed in the area overnight to prevent other thefts, the ANSA news agency said.

Officials said several factors contributed to the disaster: mountains that were stripped of vegetation by fires or illegal building, houses that were built without permits or too close to rivers, and a lack of warning for residents to flee.

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