Mudslide toll reaches 116

Hope is fading for those engulfed in an environmental disaster which was waiting to happen, Anne Hanley reports from Sarno
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The Independent Online
THE SUN was beating down on the Sarno Valley in Italy's southern Campania region yesterday, baking the surface of the massive landslide which crashed down from the surrounding mountains on Tuesday night, engulfing towns and villages in its path.

Jeeps full of rescue workers with picks and shovels plied between chaotic co-ordination centres and streets still piled high with drying clay, winding their way between armies of bulldozers and lorries carrying dark brown sludge to a dump outside the town of Sarno.

Where the streets had been cleared, clouds of choking dust rose, colouring pavements and buildings a uniform dirty grey. Where the mud still lay thick an overpowering stench arose: the smell of sludge, rotting vegetation and the decaying corpses of animals swept away by the onslaught. And, rescue workers fear, of some of more than 200 people caught in a tragedy which bore more resemblance to a huge volcanic eruption than to a landslide.

By last night the death toll in Italy's worst natural disaster in decades stood at 116. "But we're going to be digging for a long while yet," said Rosario, who is co-ordinating volunteers from the Legambiente Environmental Group, "and that number will certainly rise."

Rosario has spent the past five days ferrying jeeploads of volunteers from a remarkably efficient headquarters in nearby Striano to the worst affected areas around Sarno. "At times it's difficult to know where we're needed," he said.

"People come in with tales of stranded families, and we go to investigate, but as often as not it turns out to be a false trail. Or the army or forestry commission calls us for help. But mostly we just play it by ear."

He was worried that the volunteers who have descended on Striano from all over Italy are going to disappear back to work or school tomorrow. "Of course, we're not really digging for survivors any more," he said. "Realistically speaking, if there are people buried under the mud in air pockets, they don't stand much of a chance now. As the mud hardens the situation will just get worse."

"We were all sitting in the kitchen," said Concetta, as she watched her sons and grandsons shovel mud from what remains of that room. The kitchen sink was still attached to the wall but the furniture had simply disappeared; the flood marks on the walls were shoulder-high. In the living room the mud still lies that deep.

Concetta's immediate family survived. "But it's a miracle," she said. "We heard it coming, a huge roar, and managed to run upstairs before it hit."

Tiziana, 17, climbed from the Jeep to hand her a pair of gloves and a packet of biscuits. The girl's frown deepened as she listened to the old woman's story. Her cousin and her two young nephews were not so lucky: they were swept away from the first floor of their home in Episcopio, a village perched high up the mountainside slopes behind Sarno.

There was an eerie quiet in Episcopio yesterday, despite the constant rumble of earth-moving equipment. Shutters were firmly closed and the residents had been moved to safety on the plain below.

A great rippling wave of mud stopped abruptly halfway across the basketball court painted on the square in front of the church. The rest of the square was under a metre of stinking sludge, punctuated by a few crazily leaning trees and buckled rubbish skips, and a war memorial which, like the village's two churches, had stood firm against the flow.

Volunteers wandered through the square, their boots and trousers caked with mud, waiting for their orders from the relief operation organisers. Unlike the team from Legambiente, many waited a long time before being told what to do.

In the main co-ordination centre at the fruit market in Sarno, local authorities did battle with Interior Ministry experts for control of the operation. The result was chaos. "We took one look at that and decided to work by ourselves," said Rosario.

Similar chaos is responsible for the land management disaster behind the Sarno tragedy, it is being claimed. For many years, environmentalists have warned that of the 24 per cent of Campania's territory likely to collapse through land slippage, this area is most at risk. There has been rampant deforestation, uncontrolled building and removal of scrub on the fragile clay mountainsides.

But nothing has been done: according to Ermete Realicci, Legambiente's chairman, similar disasters are waiting to happen all over Italy.