Prosecutors arrive to begin probe of school collapse

Sunday, November 3, 2002

SAN GIULIANO DI PUGLIA, Italy -- Aftershocks continued to rattle this abandoned village Saturday as prosecutors probed whether poor construction was to blame for the deaths of 26 children buried when an earthquake flattened their school while adjacent buildings remained standing.

Three adults also died in the 5.4-magnitude quake -- a teacher crushed with her students and two elderly women killed in their homes. But the loss of so many children in a close-knit village of 1,200 weighed most heavily as residents prepared for a mass funeral today.

The school was built in 1953 but Italian news reports said a second story was added in recent years to incorporate the nursery, elementary and middle school classrooms. Heavy cement had been applied to the upper level, the reports said, suggesting the added weight may have helped bring down the building.

Quake-prone area

Questions also mounted about why the entire region -- 80 miles northeast of Naples -- had not been declared a quake-prone zone, particularly after a 1980 quake killed 2,570 people in the Naples area and left 30,000 homeless.

Such a designation would have required stiffer building codes in a part of Italy where illegal, substandard construction is widespread.

Investigating magistrates inspected the site Saturday and said their probe would look into whether manslaughter or negligence charges were warranted.

"It's an anomalous situation, the collapse of an entire building," prosecutor Andrea Cataldi Tassone told reporters at the scene. "So we must determine if there is possible responsibility."

He spoke to reporters in the eerily quiet village, evacuated Friday after two aftershocks heaved the earth again, temporarily halting recovery of the last victims from the school.

The engineer who designed the school renovations, Giuseppe La Serra, 48, told the ANSA news agency Saturday that he added two classrooms -- not an entire story -- onto the school structure and that the renovations were done in complete conformity with regulations. He denied heavy cement had been used.

Had the building been zoned as a quake-prone area, the renovations would have been carried out to a higher standard, he said.

The toll on this small rural village has horrified Italy, and the country's president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, as well as a smattering of politicians who were expected to attend today's funeral and visit with surviving residents in their tent encampment outside the town center.

There was no indication when villagers would be allowed to return home for good. While the school was one of few structures to collapse, most homes and buildings in San Giuliano were damaged in Thursday's quake.

Living like refugees

"We will be able to repair some buildings; other buildings will have to be demolished," said Dante Ambrosini, chief firefighter for the Molise region. "Other buildings which are of historic or architectural importance will be renovated -- but we can't give a time estimate."

Residents were allowed to go home briefly Saturday to fetch their belongings for what appeared to be an extended life as refugees.

In addition to San Giuliano, at least 21 other towns and villages in the Molise and Puglia regions were affected by the quake and subsequent aftershocks, said Guido Bertolaso, national director for the Italian civil defense department.

Authorities ordered a total of 5,500 people evacuated, and had so far provided 500 tents, accommodating 2,800 people, and 190 trailers for the newly homeless.

The large blue tents, housing about six people each, were bare and sterile inside, with cots and portable radiators.

Bertolaso stressed that authorities hoped to find alternative accommodations for the homeless since rains and cold over the next few weeks would make longterm tent life untenable.

He said 1,400 volunteers, 600 firefighters and 600 soldiers had been deployed across the region for the emergency effort.

Despite the stepped-up humanitarian response, residents remained distraught over their loss, and a steady stream of visitors paid their respects Saturday at the gymnasium-turned-morgue where the families of the victims held vigil.

"They've lost all the things that are dear to them," said Mario Fredianelli, a senior civil defense worker at the San Giuliano tent camp. "They can't see a certain future."

Amid confusion over the final toll, the school's principal, Giuseppe Colombo, confirmed Saturday that all nine students in the first grade had died, wiping out the village's 6-year-olds.

"Our job now is to make sure that those who survived are not traumatized by their memory of those who died," Colombo said.

When asked whether the school would be rebuilt on the same site, he said: "We have to choose another place and cancel the memory of this place completely."

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