The survivors: 'I don't know who was protecting us, why we are the ones left alive'

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Guido Mariani looked at his black and blue knees, turned over his grazed hands and then, almost in slow motion, let his eyes flick to his flatmate's lifeless body beside him. Watching the dead man's grieving father bent over the corpse in prayer, he knew it could so easily have been his own father kneeling on the dusty ground, the tears rolling down his face.

But Guido was one of the lucky ones. The 23-year-old electrical engineering student reckons he owes his life to the two wooden beams that prevented one of the apartment walls from collapsing directly on top of him.

He spent three hours trapped under the rubble. His mobile phone lay agonisingly out of reach, so although he could hear its incessant ringing and knew it was frantic family members trying to find out if he was alive, he could do nothing to allay their fears.

"I wasn't able to free myself. I was shouting for help," Guido said, his eyes still wide with shock. "Eventually a small opening appeared, hands reached in, they grabbed me and pulled me out. This is a city that is full of barracks but it was ordinary citizens who pulled me out with their bare hands. Outside it was like a living nightmare."

Further along the Via XX Settembre, tearful students huddled in blankets and slippers outside the half-collapsed university residence that they had managed to escape when the quake struck in the early hours of Monday morning. The building had been four storeys high but was now barely one, its concrete floors folded in two like a flimsy birthday card.

"I was in bed – it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me," Luigi Alfonsi, 22, said. "We managed to come down with other students but we had to sneak through a hole in the stairs as the whole floor came down."

His eyes filled with tears and his hands trembled. "There was water gushing out of pipes and the corridor which led to the stairs was partially blocked when a piece of the wall fell."

As rescue workers pulled the body of a male student out of the rubble, and aftershocks continued to reverberate around the battered town, it was almost too much to bear for some survivors. "I don't know who was protecting us, why we are still alive," Lucia, a 23-year-old student, told La Repubblica. "We don't know how many of our colleagues have been killed.

"It was like an explosion," she explained. "We were on the fourth floor. We went all the way down the stairs without breathing, because of the dust. We waited for three hours until the first signs of help came. The telephones didn't work – it was only the people who were already here, the neighbours, who helped."

Across town on the Via Rossi, Valerio was watching with tears in his eyes as a bulldozer shifted mounds of debris on the spot that he used to call home. The student had spent the night away from his flat, a flip, spur-of-the-moment decision that ultimately became one of life or death.

But relief at his own escape was mixed with frantic worry for his five flatmates trapped on the second floor. "I slept out last night and that saved my life," he told La Stampa newspaper. "Now I am just waiting and hoping they pull my friends out alive. The injuries are getting worse and worse because they are people who have been trapped under the rubble for longer and longer. It's like an apocalypse, an endless nightmare."

For Tancredi Vicentini, the horror was continuing even after he had jumped out of a window with his girlfriend to safety just moments before their house became a tomb – for he had not managed to rescue his sleeping 60-year-old mother.

Chunks of falling masonry had blocked his way into the room where she was sleeping, and now she was somewhere under the rubble.

"It all happened so quickly, there was so much dust in the air and you could barely breathe or see anything," Mr Vicentini said, his trousers marked with bloodstains.

He managed to flag down some passing firemen in the street, who began lifting pieces of debris only to stop abruptly, deciding those inside were "dead for sure. They left saying they had worse things to attend to", Mr Vicentini said.

But there were glimmers of hope, as rescue workers battled against the clock to reach those still alive in their homes turned death traps.

A two-year-old was pulled from the rubble, alive thanks to the mother who died shielding the toddler with her own body. A doctor at L'Aquila's main hospital told Italian television that he had seen "three or four babies die in my arms, from having suffocated in rubble". But he had also encountered hope: a pregnant woman who escaped the carnage gave birth to a baby girl in the back of an ambulance.

And as dusk fell came news that six students had been dug out alive from the twisted remains of the student university – an amazing 15 hours after the ground had begun to shake.