Heroic players help L'Aquila to find its feet

By Peter Bills
Sunday 14 February 2010 01:00

As England arrive in Rome to take on Italy in the Six Nations today, just 100 miles away the rugby town of L'Aquila is still recovering from the earthquake that struck 10 months ago, sending shockwaves which were felt as far away as the capital.

For the marketing and communications official for L'Aquila Rugby Club, Marco Molina, the memories of that disaster are all too fresh. Awoken by the rumbling noise, he knew what it meant; there had been several thousand foreshocks which told of impending disaster.

High in the Apennine mountains of central Italy, the capital of the Abruzzo region was no stranger to earthquakes: the last major one, in 1703, had killed 5,000 people. In the early hours of 6 April 2009, Molina was terrified for his young sons.

"It was 3.30am and the bed was dancing on the floor," he said. "I knew, there had been warning quakes. But it was still impossible to imagine this. In our apartment block, where we live on the third floor, the staircase collapsed first. So there was no way out. We had to wait, to hold on and just hope we would be alive when it ended.

"I was ready to die. I thought to myself, 'I am 40, I have had a good life. It is not important for me to live. But how can my sons, Massimo aged six and Ricardo aged three, die? They are much too young to die'."

The building was swaying in complete darkness. All around there were screams. "The earthquake lasted one minute 32 seconds and we were trapped," said Molina. "But the apartment block moved for 12 to 13 minutes. When it finally stopped we started to climb down over the broken building.

"When I got out of my house with my wife and my sons, it was like Apocalypse Now. There was a strange yellow light, a fog of dust, pieces of wall laying broken in the street, people saying nothing. The street kept moving from aftershocks because the quake is like a wave."

It is estimated that more than 300 people died. Today, L'Aquila remains a haunting, desolate place, but it is slowly finding its feet thanks to the courage and commitment to the community which members of the rugby club demonstrated that night – and continue to do.

Strong young men, such as current players Lorenzo Bocchini and Dario Pallotta, rushed to the local hospital to help. Pallotta, 25, recalls: "Just after the quake everyone ran outside to escape the crumbling buildings. As we all made for the square I heard a woman's voice calling for help. She was trapped inside her house. The collapsed staircase had blocked the front door, so I had to knock it down. The pipes were severed and the place was wet, with a dreadful smell of gas. I found an old lady there with her husband and lifted them in turn on to my shoulder to carry them outside.

"I then heard that help was needed at the main hospital, where some of the floors were about to collapse. We spread the word among our team-mates and rushed to the spot. We helped evacuate the patients and the necessary equipment. A new field hospital was set up in a nearby field.

"Our stadium became a huge camp to host evacuees," he adds. "We were exhausted and absolutely shattered, but nobody wanted to leave. Of course we could feel the aftershocks, there were several. But we stayed to do everything we could to help."

Promising young prop Lorenzo Sebastiani lost his life, one of 10 who died as their five-storey apartment block collapsed. The only reminder of it is the jagged, broken walls little more than head high. The centre of the once beautiful town is still cordoned off and guarded by the Italian army; but the long, arduous task of reconstruction has at last begun.

L'Aquila's captain, Maurizio Zaffiri, said: "The city is destroyed, but what we have now is a very big pride. After it had happened, all the citizens of L'Aquila wanted the rugby team to restart its matches. It was very important for us and our collective spirit, and was seen as a little step forward."

Is there a sense of cameraderie with other rugby clubs? "We have very big solidarity from everywhere," he grinned. "That has been very good for us, a big comfort. The spirit of Italian rugby has been shown."

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