An old Italian tragedy that left a scar

My personal account of a destructive earthquake I witnessed when I was 16 and lived close enough to be affected

The southern Italy earthquake of 1980

It was a rather hot day for November. We teens and children were playing outside, in the courtyard and in the surrounding countryside. It was a beautiful autumn Sunday, sunny and cool, but not too much. In the afternoon there was the classic ball game in the courtyard. Our cheap but legendary Super Santos orange plastic ball, very common in Italy even today, had ended up in a balcony on the 2nd floor and one of us had climbed over from the stairs window to retrieve it. He took a risk that today as a parent would make my skin crawl. But over time we had all taken that risk in turn: the courtyard was surrounded by balconies and terraces on the ground floor, it was inevitable that the ball would end up in one of them. Sometimes we buzzed the owner to ask the favor to return it. More often, since the ball was easily confiscated, or worse, cut in two with scissors in a solemn ritual that they made us attend ruthlessly, we took the risk of climbing over before the owner noticed. When it went wrong, we would resort to a desperate fundraiser and rush to buy another one. In practice, we risked breaking and entering to avoid embezzlement by the flat's owner. But that Sunday afternoon, November 30, 1980, the ball had ended up in the balcony of a friend of ours who no longer lived there, the apartment on the 2nd floor was uninhabited. So someone had to go to retrieve it despite its height of about 6 m...

In the mid 70s my family moved back from Rome to their region of origin in central Italy, about 300 km southeast. It is a small town of 60000 souls at 700 m of altitude and 75 km inland from the Adriatic coast. It is in the heart of the central Apennines, an area at high seismic risk. Winters were cold and snowy. It was nice to wake up to a strange silence. The noises were muffled by the snow and so a strange sensation warned you that by opening the window’s curtain you might find a nice surprise: often the snow was so abundant that it prevented us from going to school. That was our hope more than anything else. But that November had been very nice, we would not talk about snow for a while and we were happy to be able to play outdoors thanks to that beautiful sunny day.

After the ball game, we went a little wild for the fields adjacent to the four buildings that enclosed our mythical courtyard (below). They were built at the end of a street that branched off the main artery of the city quite north of the city center. At that time they were the last buildings, still surrounded by grass fields. Then the urbanization went on and the fields where we played no longer exist. There are other buildings and even a 5-men-soccer field: it is no longer necessary to disturb the quiet of the courtyard. The kids don't play there anymore, the courtyard is silent today, in a way unimaginable in the 70s. But children and teens today are fewer and do not play outside, they prefer computers and consoles inside their homes. For activities there are gyms and sports clubs. But that's another matter...

Campobasso, Italy - A Microsoft Bing 3D aerial view of the building where my family and I lived at the time. The arrow points at the flat we rented. The 4 buildings enclose a courtyard we kids stormed every day.

We called it "the little grove" and it is still there. It was far enough away from the courtyard that it has not yet been affected by urbanization. Just before the entrance point to the grove there was a solitary oak tree on which we climbed emulating the stunts of superheroes we read comic books about or invented ourselves. The little grove borders the railway just after the courtyard buildings and a rather large green space, also today partly urbanized. A few years before, you could still see a steam engine that slowly covered the kilometers to or from the coast, on the single line to the main coastal city of the region. For what could be a horror for modern parents, we would also play on the railway tracks, sneaking nails or coins on them and then running away to wait for the train to pass and collect them flattened.

From spring to summer the countryside between our apartment complex and the little grove was dotted with bales of hay. We used to play dismantling some of them to make a soft bottom in which to jump from other bales of hay stacked (for the happiness of the farmer, I imagine). The path across the fields leading to the grove began immediately at the end of the paved street, next to the buildings of the courtyard. The dirt road went down and then immediately up again before disappearing among the fields. In that short stretch of downhill and uphill it was flanked by a concrete wall less than a meter thick and high ... I do not know but certainly much taller than us, especially on the side opposite the road. By walking along it the difference in height was cancelled because we walked horizontally on it at road level up to the fields. Sometimes we would sit on it and chat or play the guitar; other times we would run along it... or we would cross it on bicycles! Another thing that would terrify us, parents of today: we challenged each other to jump from the wall to the dirt road at the highest point we dared to face, trusting in the softness of the material at the base of the wall.

In the late afternoon my sister and I went into the little grove with some friends to take a walk to "the tree of death", a dry tree in the middle of a small clearing. On summer nights we would sometimes dare each other to go there with a flashlight, never alone, at least in pairs. But at the first noise in the bush we would run away terrified - laughing our heads off. That evening, after sunset, when we returned to the courtyard, we invented science fiction stories that saw us as protagonists in the exploration of Jupiter. As it began to cool off we said goodbye to each other to return to our homes. The idea of having all our friends so close even during the nights, each one in their own homes but united in the embrace of that courtyard, the theater of our daytime games, was something that gave us warmth. It made us feel a further sense of protection and security in addition to that of our own families. With some friends it was enough to look out of the window to regain contact and exchange two jokes or a chat. We were on the third floor of one of the 4 buildings in the courtyard. On the floor above there were other friends of ours. That evening my sister and her friends upstairs had decided to play in their kitchen. Around 7 p.m. we went up to the 4th floor with them.

While my sister played cook with her friends, me and their brother were listening to records in the living room. He was playing a record from a popular Italian band, released the year before. We were on the second track of side B when my friend pointed out to me that the leaves of a plant in their living room were shaking. I realized that the wall of the room was also shaking, and very rapidly. Violently I should say. I put my hand on the wall. The oscillation was impressive. The whole apartment was vibrating frighteningly and I realized what was happening. I shouted loudly to the girls in the kitchen, "The earthquake! Let's run!" Opening the door we found our friends’ father desperately trying to insert the key into the lock that wouldn't stop moving. He ordered us to stay under the door, nobody should have used the stairs during the quake. Instead I ran to the turntable to lift the cartridge. Something, perhaps the embryonic geologist inside me (or perhaps an audiophile unconsciousness), told me that everything would not collapse and I risked getting hurt to save my friend's cartridge and record. Everything was shaking and for a few moments the lights went out. In the darkness my mother screamed desperately from our doorway downstairs. When the light came back on and the shaking was over, our friends' daddy gave us the green light to escape. To unblock my panicked mother he had to slap her in the face. As I came out of the main door I noticed the rivers of people that from the other doors poured out running into the courtyard to join at the short flight of stairs that went down to the street level. We took refuge in the fields, cold and frightened, adults and children. Some would weep, some wood scream that they did not want to die. I kept my usual calm, as a future scientist. After the initial panic we were hosted by acquaintances from the building next door who lived on the ground floor, from which it is faster to escape in case of a possible aftershock. While we teens and children were lying on blankets along the corridor, close to the doorway, in the vain attempt of the various parents to let us get some sleep, the news began to arrive on TV of an epicenter in the Irpinia area, in the nearby Campania region. Entire villages were leveled, damage occurred also in Naples, the capital of the region. The Molise region seemed to report at most some collapsed cornices. After a few hours we all returned to our homes with the order to stay dressed on the beds and without getting under the covers for a quicker escape. Around 1:30 a.m. I barely felt my bed sway but I heard the screams from upstairs "The earthquake! Noooo!". Everyone was out in the open a second time. The scenes of crowds rushing out of the gates were repeated. This time someone lit fires with tires in the countryside. We decided to spend the night in the cars, at a safe distance from the buildings. I slept a few hours in the back seat of our Ford Escort with our friend from the above floor and our two dads in the front seats. The women settled in the other family's car.

The seismogram: November 23, 1980, 7:34 PM, Seismic Station of Duronia (near Campobasso, Italy) - from the Italian Institute of geophysics and Volcanology (INGV)

The next day the scale of the tragedy was clear. The reality of certain areas of southern Italy is made up of people who build their own house after great sacrifices. So much for anti-seismic criteria. A shock of magnitude 6.9 like that, would sweep away houses made of bricks lying one on top of the other. It went well for us, very well indeed. One more story of the courtyard to tell. At school the physics professor explained to us the mechanism of an earthquake, what a fault was. I could not imagine that a few years later I would enroll in Geology and earthquakes would become a familiar topic for me.

The best professor I ever had in school told us that faults are fissures in the rock whose two sides move relative to each other. The movement is prevented by the natural roughness of the rock along the surface of the fault. Thus energy builds up over time until it is such that it breaks through the asperities and triggers movement along the fault generating an earthquake. In light of my undergraduate studies a few years later it was an impeccable description for high school students.

In college I would have learned more about faults and earthquakes. Italy is along the margin between the converging Eurasian and African plates; this margin is complicated by the presence of the Adriatic microplate which is more or less the reason why the Italian peninsula is aligned in a northwest-southeast direction while the thrust between the two plates is in a north-south direction. The Apennines are put sideways instead. The tectonic thrust that generated the mountain belt caused the sediments of the North African margin to move and accumulate in a northeastern direction, towards the Adriatic (below). Two continents moving towards each other generate a compression of the sediments accumulated at their margins. These are deformed into folds and faults that generate earthquakes and are piled up in large thicknesses to form mountain ranges.

Simplified tectonic scheme of the Italian peninsula area: in red the main plate margins and the directions of compression; in yellow the directions of extension. In the box the Italian seismicity: in purple the areas at highest risk in the heart of the Apennines (from geosciences.blogspot.com).

By analyzing seismograms it is possible to understand the type of movement of a fault and its orientation even if it is buried. It is also possible to estimate the surface area of a fault involved in the movement (usually the larger it is, the larger the earthquake). Until the 1980 earthquake, it was thought that most of the seismicity in the Apennine chain was due to the compression that formed it. Instead, the 1980 central Italy earthquake was due to the opposite process, the extension. One can imagine that a mountain range, once raised (or as it rises) due to compression between two converging plates, also settles on its own weight generating distensive processes in the crust, the major cause of central Apennine earthquakes. In other words, the compression is now concentrated towards the Adriatic; the center of the Apennines and the Tyrrhenian side are in extension, so that in the latter there is volcanism in part still active (the extension opens fractures through which the magma can rise).

In particular, seismologists realized that the earthquake of magnitude Mw = 6.9 was actually the result of movement on three adjacent faults triggered one after the other in less than a minute at a depth of 15 km. Years later it was discovered that these successions of earthquakes can also occur within hours or days: often the subsequent earthquakes, if they are of lower magnitude, are interpreted as aftershocks. Sometimes they can be real main earthquakes: the main shock, stronger, is due to the sudden failure of the asperities that hold the two sides of the fault from moving. After the main liberating quake, other sectors of the portion of the fault that has finally snapped also "settle", they slip, "adjusting" to the new situation just created. Since they are minor shocks that always occur later, they are called aftershocks. But often the seismic event is given by a rapid succession of main slips on more fault planes very close to each other. These are not aftershocks but single earthquakes in rapid succession in the same epicentral area. Sometimes "rapid" means "in some days": in 1997, following the Umbria earthquake, some geophysicists had even judicial troubles for having declared that the main event had already happened and there would have been only aftershocks of much lower magnitude; instead there was another earthquake of comparable magnitude after 9 hours in the same epicenter. In other cases it may be days or months. Predicting it is impossible. We should build so as to avoid damage.

The 1980 Italy earthquake was actually due to three earthquakes about 20 seconds apart. A mechanism that was later found to be widespread in the Apennines and elsewhere, even at far greater time intervals (from the INGV website).

I wonder if we also learned anything else from that tragedy, though. It is normal for the Italian peninsula to be hit by earthquakes of that magnitude sooner or later. Several years after, tragedies have been recurring: Umbria 1997, L'Aquila 2006, Amatrice 2016.... Italy is made of ancient historical centers and securing them is a long and expensive job. Is someone working on it? I don't think so... Meanwhile, we’re waiting for the next big one.