Death toll rises in Italian disaster

Three days after a sea of mud engulfed Sarno, rescue work continues, but with little co-ordination. Anne Hanley reports
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The Independent Online
THERE is a series of wide gashes in the mountains which tower above Sarno, great valleys of fresh dark brown earth plunging towards the town and its surrounding villages.

Below in Sarno, the earth does not stop. It is banked high along the fronts of houses and shops, mixed with tree trunks, garden chairs, and all the detritus of a town engulfed.

Beneath that mud, the 3,000 rescue workers who are feverishly digging with spades and bulldozers fear, there may be dozens of bodies. The mud has dried now and solidified, almost certainly trapping anyone caught in it. The search has been aided by sniffer dogs brought in from Austria.

Officials say they believe 54 people died in the disaster, though the figure cannot be verified until soldiers have finished searching for another 70 still missing (though locals believe that figure is much higher), including children and whole families feared to have been buried alive.

On a street corner on the outskirts of the village of Episcopio, a mother and grandmother wept ecstatically as police unloaded a bemused teenager from their jeep.

"They are still bringing people down by the dozen," said a woman whose bar somehow remains open, despite having had its front shutters destroyed by the force of the onslaught, and having been without water for three days. "They come down by car or are hauled out by helicopter. Thankfully, a lot of them are still alive."

Helicopters circled ceaselessly, combing the flat roof tops for signs of life in what is now a ghost town. Only rescue workers and police are allowed past the barricades. Even ambulances are confined to the huge fruit market on the edge of town. There, the helicopters land regularly, offloading stretcher cases, who are ferried to hospitals in neighbouring towns.

The stark bulk of Sarno's own hospital is clearly visible high up the hill behind the town; six people lost their lives there as the landslide crashed through the building on Monday night.

In a hut marked "bar" by the perimeter fence of the market, a field hospital has been set up and mainly elderly people dazed by the disaster, are having bruises treated. Across the car park, girl guides do battle with a single temperamental computer, striking off names of people admitted to hospital from the list of people still unaccounted for.

"Last I heard, we were still looking for 150 people here" said Sarno's deputy mayor, Maria Diodato. "But the situation is so confused, that it's impossible to give definite figures."

Mrs Diodato is surrounded by a frantic crowd in a huge barnlike structure in the market area, where the homeless are being given food, blankets and clothes and directed towards schools where a camp bed might be available. She is having trouble with a caterer who has 300 meals ready but hasn't been told where to deliver them, and a cook with 3,000 rescue workers to feed but no food in his kitchen.

"As you can see, there's not much co-ordination here" she says, clearly exasperated. "The interior ministry has sent people down, but they don't know the situation on the ground; they can't really appreciate the extent of the problem. Yet they expect us to take a back seat and follow orders."

As she speaks, a motorcade draws up outside, blue lights flashing. Senate speaker Nicola Mancino has arrived, as has a delegation from the Left Democratic Party, the biggest element in the coalition government.

Crowds of curious locals surge around them, ousting journalist from impromptu press conferences which, however, are drowned out by the din of helicopters. Back in Sarno, despite the bustle of rescue operations, there is a curious quiet. The sun is out and residents line the mud filled streets. They looked bewildered, exhausted, as they watch the scene to see if missing relations are brought to safety.

"There was all that fuss about the earthquakes in Umbria" says the woman in the bar. "But that was nothing. When that mountain came plunging down, I thought it was the end of the world."

Some experts attributed the region's fragility to mass construction, poor infrastructure and poor planning. The stairway of the hospital in Sarno collapsed when the torrent hit the building side-on and five medical staff were feared buried in the ruins, including a doctor, Vincenzo di Maro. His wife waited anxiously in the town centre, clutching a mobile telephone.