On This Day

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Associated Press
Messina lies in ruins following the earthquake of Dec. 28, 1908.

On This Day: Sicily Hit by Deadliest Earthquake in European History

December 28, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 28, 1908, the most destructive earthquake in European history struck northern Sicily and the southern tip of mainland Italy, destroying the city of Messina and killing more than 100,000 people in Italy.

Sicily and Calabria Devastated by Earthquake

The earthquake struck the Strait of Messina, which divides Sicily and Calabria, the south-westernmost province of the Italian mainland, at around 5:20 a.m. local time. The shock collapsed buildings on both sides of the strait, sparked fires, and triggered a tsunami, causing 40-foot tidal waves to pummel seaside towns.

Cities and towns lost as much as half their population. It is estimated that the Sicilian city of Messina, which was almost completely leveled, lost more than 70,000 of its 150,000 residents. The Calabrian city of Reggio and its surrounding area may have lost may have lost 25,000, a quarter of its population.

“The ships that have arrived in Messina describe it simply as a piles of ruins, smoking in places, below a cloud of smoke,” wrote The Times of London. “The most characteristic features of the scene on landing were the empty skeletons of the houses of which the main walls still stand, the roofs, party walls, and floors having all fallen in. It is impossible to pass through most of the streets, which are blocked in some places with huge amounts of fallen debris. And here and there bodies are sometimes seen in inaccessible places, pinned in by beams or masonry and projecting from the upper storeys of houses, sometimes lying half buried and horribly contorted.”

The Italian government was slow to provide relief for the area, but international relief agencies and foreign navies assisted in rescuing people from the rubble and transporting them to safety.

With their homes destroyed, many Sicilians and Calabrians were forced to permanently relocate to other parts of Italy or to America.

Photographs of the Earthquake

The Sicilian Almanac has a collection of photographs showing Sicily before and after the earthquake.

The Royal Mail Ship Republic carries photographs and a gallery of artists’ illustrations from publications dating to 1908.

Measuring the Earthquake

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Messina earthquake is estimated to have been a magnitude 7.2 earthquake on the Richter scale, which was developed in the 1930s to measure how much energy an earthquake releases. The strongest quake ever recorded registered 9.5 on the scale, and each point represents a jump in strength by a multiple of 10.

It is not uncommon to hear of an earthquake that registers in the high sixes or low sevens on the Richter scale. Though the Messina earthquake was the deadliest in European history, it was by no means the deadliest in world history. That record is held by an earthquake that struck China in the 16th century and killed more than 800,000 people.

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