Worry over family, friends in quake-torn Italy has Philadelphians frantically seeking news

A woman is comforted as she walks through rubble after an earthquake

A woman is comforted as she walks through rubble after an earthquake

Philadelphia’s Italian community has been racing to computers and phones to get information about loved ones in central Italy, where a massive earthquake has destroyed entire towns, killing at least 150. The death toll continues to climb.

The America-Italy Society of Philadelphia, which normally teaches language classes, was fielding dozens of phone calls Wednesday from people trying to find out if their friends and family are safe.

Director Franca Riccardi has been helping people comb through maps to pinpoint the exact locations of villages such as Amatrice, Norica, Accumoli, and Pescara del Tronto.

“There are very small villages. Sometimes these villages have names that are very similar,” said Riccardi. “They don’t understand well the spelling — the Italian spelling — so they are very worried.”

Most people are using Facebook and other social media platforms to contact loved ones. For those who can’t, the Italian consulate in Philadelphia is offering a hotline.  

Some of those villages are 1,000 years old or more, with stone buildings perched on picturesque mountainsides. It makes the landscape fantastically beautiful for tourists, but nearly impossible for search and rescue operations.

“So many of these towns are small, older town with very narrow streets. You’re lucky to get a car through without bringing in the side-view mirrors,” said Michael Bonasera, head of the History of Italian Immigration Museum in South Philadelphia. “So, if there is a disaster on these roads, it’s impassable. There is no passing through that.”

The region was last hit by a major earthquake seven years ago, when the village of L’Aquila was leveled. The owners of a restaurant destroyed in that quake relocated it to Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, calling it Grand Café L’Aquila.

One of the owners, Stefano Biasini, happened to be visiting the old village when the latest earthquake hit. It rocked the village all over again, but caused relatively little damage.

His partner, Riccardo Longo, has been in touch with him, and said he is OK, but frightened.

“Because of what happened in the previous earthquake, everyone’s reaction was to run out in the street,” said Longo, who is currently traveling in London. “Most people slept outside because they are terrified. He slept in his car, away from any buildings.”

Longo said that as soon as all his partners are back in Philadelphia, they will establish a fundraiser to help earthquake victims, as will the Italian Immigration Museum.

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