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In Rome and Safe as Houses

Thank God for friends!

This was what I saw when I dashed out of the Grotta Azzura hotel. I didn’t know this video was being made. It must have been no more than about two minutes after the quake. I was running to my friend’s house to let her and our friend from Rome out of the house. This was my second run through town.

That morning, my phone hadn’t informed me that it was Time Change day, so I had come down the hill on my bike for Mass (in the gift shop for the Feast of Christ the King because the Scavi had been rendered unsafe in the quakes the previous Wednesday) at seven-thirty instead of eight-thirty. So, discovering I had an extra hour to kill, I went to the Grotta Azzura’s very pleasant morning room where breakfast was always put on for guests and they make excellent coffee. I was texting a friend in Arizona when the world started to shake.

In the last few months, we have had constant tremors, hundreds per day, so we had all started doing same thing: the conversation would pause, everyone would freeze and we would wait to see if it was another big one. So far, one merely shrugs and gets back to the conversation a few seconds later. But not this time.

The shaking got stronger and the noise louder, and we knew this was a Big One. I and the ten people in the room just staggered out as the ground heaved under our feet and the walls wobbled and china crashed to the floor and the world roared. The Grotta Azzura is thought to be one of the safest buildings inside the walls and the government had been paying to house a lot of older people there whose homes had been damaged or destroyed in all our other quakes. So the little old ladies were coming down the stairs while furniture and decorations crashed to the ground and the building continued to shake. One of the ladies was in a state of incoherent panic, and was just standing in the hotel reception area, so we grabbed her on the way out and almost carried her outside.

The hotel and the building opposite seemed mostly undamaged and I didn’t realize how bad it had been. I had some friends in town whose house had stood up well so far, but whose front door could not be opened from the inside without the power running (because, Italy!). I started running down towards the bottom of town. There was a thick fog of dust, – the video was probably taken about ten minutes later, and it’s still very foggy-dusty – from all the buildings that had fallen, ancient churches mostly, whose 800 year old mortar had turned to powder. I rounded the corner from the hotel and stopped in shock and horror. The little piazza where we have one of our big bonfires on December 9th, the Vigil of the Feast of Our Lady of Loreto, every year, was full of huge stones. The church opposite, that I had never seen open, was open now, the whole front section had collapsed. The street leading down to the Palazzo Seneca where I usually work was piled with rubble from the 14th century church of San Francesco, cars that had been parked next to it were crushed under huge chunks of masonry.

I stopped and burst into tears. Out of the dust fog, Federico Bianconi suddenly appeared and ran straight up to me and threw his arms around me, and hugged me for a moment. Then I said I had to get to my friend’s house. The street was piled with rubble but it looked as though I could get over it. All the streets were piled high with rubble. My friend’s house is immediately behind the Seneca, and the chefs from the hotel were standing at the edge of their terrace shouting my friend’s name. I banged on her door and yelled, and to my endless relief heard them shouting back inside.

It was only then that I realized I had left my keys in my bag and my bag was still in the hotel morning room with the computer. I ran back around through the main piazza and saw this.


… and I knew we were finished. The town had been substantially destroyed.

I went back to the hotel. By this time the Vigili del Fuoco guys were about with their hard hats, clearing little foot paths through the rubble. I heard them yelling from the piazza “Senora! Veloce! Veloce!” “Run fast!” I hesitated for a moment and thought, well, I have to have my bag. My wallet, my computer, my passport… I could feel the ground and the building shaking from aftershocks. I jammed it all into my bag and fled. My bike was OK, so I moved it into the main street under the trees in the Piazza del Teatro, and ran back down to my friend’s house.

By the time I had done my leaping-over-rubble trick again and got back to my friend’s house she and our friend who was visiting from Rome had managed somehow to get out of the house. (The house is behind high thick walls and the property backs onto the city walls, which had collapsed. The front door is really the only way out and the latch, like many houses in Italy, has an electric button you press to open the door. At least in theory you can open the door with the key, but on her door the lock is blocked for reasons known only to the man who built the door.)

We stood in the street in front her house and could see the damage of the bell tower of the co-cathedral. She and our other friend were still in their pajamas, as were many of the people who gathered in the piazza.

When we got to the piazza, the monks came, with their purple stoles and steel toed work boots. They rushed past us towards the damaged buildings and shouted, “Pregare! Pregare!” We nodded and knelt down, and a few minutes later Fr. Basil came and started leading us in the Rosary, as more people appeared, often in pajamas and wrapped in blankets.

While we prayed and the dust settled and the sun got warmer, the Vigili del Fuoco and police came and people appeared with chairs for the older people, more blankets.


While we recited our Aves, the firemen rolled out more tape and cordoned us off at the far west end of the piazza, far enough away, we hoped, from the bell tower of the city hall that looked as though it would crash down on top of us.

Old ladies were being escorted or carried. One poor old thing, entirely wrapped in blankets, sat next to her oxygen tank and prayed along with us quietly. We realized we were caked in dust, my hair was thick with the dust of the religious and cultural patrimony of Norcia. We prayed the Collect for the votive Mass against earthquakes.

By this time the hotel had brought out tables with food and water and the firemen had escorted the Poor Clares out of their monastery and into the piazza. It was the first time I had ever seen them. I knew then that they were preparing to completely evacuate the town; the Poor Clares never leave their cloister. You never see them. Until yesterday.

By this time we knew that the town was mostly in ruins, and that the roads leading to the piazza were mostly blocked with rubble and were very dangerous.


After a few hours, they brought in a bulldozer to clear a path down the main strada, and said that they would be escorting us, ten at a time, down the main street and out the Porta Romana. I and my two friends walked just behind two Poor Clares, one of them very elderly and wearing nothing on her feet but bedroom slippers.

Past the enoteca. Past the bakery that had been closed since August. Past the pile of rubble that had been the top half of the fabric shop and the fallen and broken timbers that had been bolted to the walls to hold them up. We came to my bike, and I dumped my bag in the front basket and wheeled it out. Past the norcinerie where the truffles and wild boar sausage was the specialty. Past the produce shop where the best of the local farms could be had. Past the kitchen store where, just the day before, I thought I should go and get a new blender.  Past the antique store of our friend Emanuela who had been doing the restoration of the side altars in the Basilica. And finally out the main gate, that was already covered in scaffolding and had just reopened a few weeks before.

All our friends in town were there, sitting in the park and on benches. We took leave of them and headed up to my house. I had no idea if it was still standing, or whether the kitties were OK, so you may imagine my relief when we came up the hill and saw that it was, apparently, completely undamaged. The other two flats were empty, I suppose the people having just got in their cars and taken off.

Some of the books were on the floor and some pictures had leapt off the walls. The shelves in the kitchen were leaning perilously, but the china was still in one piece. I ran about the house taking down the remaining pictures and leaning them on the sofa. I pushed the fridge up against the shelves to shore them up, and took the china and put it on the floor under the table. There was nothing to be done about the food in the fridge or freezer; it’s anyone’s guess when the power was going to be back on. I gathered up the kitties – which took a while since they shot out of the house as soon as I opened the door… except for little Bertie whom I finally found in his favourite cardboard box under the dining table – and put them all in their cat carrier.

I loaded up the wheelie shopping cart and my backpack with cat food and, among other things, a large bottle of champagne and two bottles of home made rosehip wine which I just couldn’t bear to think of being lost if there were another quake. You sometimes wonder what you will grab if your house is on fire or falling down, and now I know: cats, passport, wine. I remembered to take the novel I am only half way through. I grabbed my toothbrush and a few other necessities, gave the plants a large drink, and we left. Abandon ship. The kitties have never been away from our house in their lives.

Back down the hill the rest of the town was gathering outside the Porta Romana and people were deciding what to do. A friend of the monks who had come to visit from Assisi offered to drive us to Spoleto or Foligno, so after a few minutes debate we decided to just flee. The power was off, the water mains were probably ruptured and the water unsafe. I suppose the gas mains must also be shut off. I don’t expect there will be any way of getting food other than hunting and gathering. It will be a long time before Norcia is a town again, that one can live in.

It took a long time to get through the mountains. Cascia is undamaged but the power is off. The main road between Norcia and Spoleto was partially blocked by boulders and I expect the tunnels aren’t safe. We had to drive up and over, on the ancient roads, all switch-backs, hairpin turns, precipitous drops into steep mountain valleys … and for some reason RVs. Campers and huge vans as well as police and emergency vehicles and the occasinoal RAI or Sky news van. We went up and over, and met the highway again still quite close to Norcia. Then a long drive to Spoleto. The trains had been cancelled all day, but by the time we got there at about one pm the morning trains had finally arrived from Ancona. We were in Rome by two thirty.

I and the kitties are safe. We have been taken in by friends in the centro of Rome, and I spent the night last night getting up repeatedly from terrifying dreams that we were all trapped in a skyscraper and all I had to carry them out was a bird cage that was too small for them. It seems the kitties are recovering faster than I am. They were up last night doing their usual romping about. They don’t seem to mind being refugees.

I don’t know how long we will have to be away. I had a text message from the monks to say they are still there. They have spent the last few months building themselves a pretty sturdy camp-like home up on the hill. I think they’ve even got independent water and electric. They’re able to stay, but even they are at a loss.

I will have to spend a little time in Rome, and calm down, buy some clothes. (I didn’t even bring a suit case, which was a good thing since the car we were in was barely able to hold four humans and a box full of cats). Once I’ve got something to wear other than the black pullover and grey tweed skirt – totally unsuitable for Rome’s sauna-like climate, and had a few meals and another night’s sleep, I’ll start deciding what to do.

More updates as we know more things. In the meantime, if you can stand being asked again, I could use some financial help. I don’t have any means of cooking here, so I’ll have to be doing a lot of expensive Rome eatings-out. And I have no clothes at all with me but what I was wearing.

But I do know that I will be watching the situation very closely, and as soon as there is the slightest possibility of going back, I will. Even if it’s just a tent. I’ve mostly stopped shaking, but now the thought has come again and again and again… I want to go home. I just want to go home. But for the moment, it seems there’s very little left to go home to.

Originally published at What’s Up With Francischurch?

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