- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

L’AQUILA, ITALY (AP) - The hospital of San Salvatore should have been a sanctuary for the injured when this central Italian city and its surroundings were struck by an earthquake.

It was anything but.

Like many buildings in the area, its walls cracked and crumbled after the April 6 pre-dawn temblor, forcing the evacuation of the 250-bed hospital just as it was struggling to treat 1,500 more injured. Nobody inside the hospital was killed or injured in the quake.

Now, the failure of San Salvatore has turned into a source of public outrage and debate, with many people asking how the structure, whose construction began in the early 1970s, could have crumbled in the 6.3-magnitude quake. It also the focus of an investigation, with experts saying inferior building standards for an earthquake-prone area factored into the tragedy.

“Not only should a hospital not be damaged by an earthquake, but it should also keep working,” said engineer Alessandro Martelli, who heads a six-member team of experts monitoring damaged buildings around L’Aquila. “Such a building would have been a disgrace even if it was built in the 1700s.”

Investigators have collected samples from the hospital, and chief prosecutor Alfredo Rossini said the hospital is central to what he has pledged would be “the mother of all investigations” _ both because it is a structure of great public importance and because it was one of the city’s newer buildings and should have been built to resist a quake of this magnitude.

He said this week he expected the probe to lead to the arrests of anyone found responsible for substandard construction.

Officials say some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed in the 49 cities, towns and villages around L’Aquila, a picturesque city of 70,000. Among structures destroyed were centuries-old churches, bell towers and buildings _ but also modern structures, including a university dormitory that pancaked, killing seven students.

Shoddy construction has been a problem in Italy, even in places not struck by earthquakes. In November, for example, a section of a ceiling collapsed at a high school near Turin, killing one student and injuring 20 others.

Martelli said some pillars holding up the walls of the hospital _ which was started in 1974 but took nearly 30 years to finish due to delays and bureaucracy _ simply “exploded.”

“The hypothesis is that the concrete did not resist the quake’s compression and the rods broke apart because they were not sufficiently fixed. The problem is simply bad construction,” Martelli said.

Now, in place of a 250-bed hospital, tents have been set up outside the damaged structure for emergency cases. Other cases are sent to other regional hospitals, with only 40 patients too weak or old to move elsewhere still being treated at the field hospital.

The tent complex looks like an army hospital in a war zone. The internal medicine ward is a long tent flanked by cots on each side where nurses tread over improvised tarp flooring as they tend to elderly patients, some with breathing tubes in their noses.

Prosecutors are still working to determine what exactly went wrong at San Salvatore that prevented the hospital from fulfilling its mission as a place of healing for the injured and sick.

Rossini, the prosecutor, said he would look into “the whole construction chain of the collapsed buildings, from when the contracts were drawn, to who built them, to the designers and to who carried out the tests.”

Antonio Piersanti, director of the seismology department at the Rome-based National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, said the massive destruction inflicted by the quake “is not normal.”

“A house that is built properly can resist such an earthquake,” Piersanti said.

The Civil Protection office’s official toll of victims rose on Friday to 295, after the death of a man who had been seriously injured in the quake. The exact date of the death was not immediately available.

Cracks zigzag through the dull yellow brick exterior of the hospital, a complex of several wings set on the edge of L’Aquila. That belies the extensive destruction inside, where large chunks of concrete have broken off pillars holding up the structure, metal ceiling slabs hang from single cords, blocking corridors and one entire stairwell is nothing but a pile of rubble.

One of the well-preserved areas is a modern chapel in a central courtyard built in the 1990s where just a few cracks run through walls decorated with small statuettes of Jesus bearing the cross. Otherwise, there is no rubble or other visible destruction, and the building is being used as a storehouse for blankets and other supplies.

Roberto Marzetti, general director of L’Aquila’s state health authority, said the situation is not as bad as it seems. He believes parts of the hospital can start working again within months. He also considers it a success that the hospital managed to treat patients for six hours following the quake that struck at 3:32 a.m that day. It wasn’t evacuated until 10 a.m.

He estimates that only a third of the hospital _ an area including the emergency room _ is damaged beyond repair. “The rest can be recovered,” he said, adding that he expects the least-damaged sections to reopen in about two months, and others in about six months.

Many of the hospital staff are furious at how the building cracked and have a bleak view of the hospital ever returning to what it was.

Sabrina Cicogna, a cardiologist who treated patients after the quake, was angry over what she sad was its poor construction and said she is terrified that its rebuilding will be plagued by shortcuts and corruption.

“I have the great fear that strange things will happen even with the reconstruction of the city,” Cicogna said.


Gera reported from L’Aquila and Falconi from Rome.

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