Norcia Close to Epicenter of Devastating Earthquake in Central Italy

Rescue efforts taking place in Amatrice. The town's mayor has said half the town "isn't there anymore."
Rescue efforts taking place in Amatrice. The town's mayor has said half the town "isn't there anymore." (photo: RT/YouTube)

Like many in Rome, I was awoken at around 3.30 this morning as the top floor apartment I was staying in gently swayed from an earthquake tremor for about 30 seconds, setting off car alarms. A slightly gentler aftershock followed about half an hour later.

It was ominously similar to the earthquake that struck L’Aquila in 2009 which resulted in 309 people losing their lives and which we also felt in the Eternal City.

As then, I suspected that Rome would escape largely unscathed, but places close to the epicenter would not be so fortunate. Little did I know that the quake struck very close to Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict. I had only left the town the day before.

So far, the magnitude 6.2 earthquake has left 38 people in the region dead and 150 missing according to news reports. Many of the victims were in Accumoli and Amatrice — towns which have been devastated by the quake and which are only 20-30 miles from Norcia. 

Pope Francis shelved his prepared general audience catechesis today and instead led pilgrims in praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary for the victims.

“On hearing the news of the earthquake that has struck central Italy and which has devastated many areas and left many wounded, I cannot fail to express my heartfelt sorrow and spiritual closeness to all those present in the zones afflicted,” the Pope said Aug. 24. He offered his condolences to all who have lost loved ones, and his expressed his spiritual closeness to those who are “anxious and afraid.”

Norcia has become particularly well known in recent years because of the American Benedictine monks who re-founded the monastery there in 2000. In a statement posted on their Facebook page, the monks assured the public they were OK but highlighted the many injured, especially in the small mountain villages.

“Please pray for them,” they said. “We monks will do what we can to contribute here on the ground, but we'll need your spiritual support in a special way during this period.”

They added: “We, as many others in Norcia and surrounding areas, suffered a lot of damage to our buildings and especially to our basilica. It will take some time to assess the extent of the damage, but it is very sad to see the many beautiful restorations we've made to St. Benedict's birthplace reduced, in a moment, to disrepair.” The monks have most recently been restoring some of the side chapels of the basilica.

To the question of what can the public to do help, they wrote: “Please, pray for us, for those who have lost their lives, who have lost someone they love, who have lost their homes and livelihoods. We will need your help, as always but now in a special way, to start the project of rebuilding. Please consider making a gift to help us get started.”

I hope to return to Norcia soon and will give an update on the latest from there.

Update 3.23 p.m.:

The Vatican has said that "as a concrete sign of the Holy Father's closeness to those affected by the earthquake, a team of six members of Vatican City's Firefighting Corps left this morning for Amatrice." It added that the team will work in accordance with Italy's Civil Protection in the search and rescue of victims.

7.44 p.m.:

In a further statement released this afternoon, the monks of Norcia have decided that as "a precautionary measure" and after "careful study of the developing seismic situation", they will be transferring their community to Rome, leaving two monks in Norcia to "keep watch over the basilica and monitor the developing situation." The two will be "sleeping in tents outside the city walls" to avoid danger, the statement added. 

While in Rome, the community will stay at the international Benedictine headquarters at St. Anselmo. 

"We strive to maintain the order of the Rule even during the most difficult of circumstances, and this transfer, while disruptive, will ensure the safety of our monks and grant us all the peace to continue to practice our monastic life," the monks said, and called for continued prayers "for our community, and consider giving a gift ( to help our effort to rebuild."

According to Norcia resident Hilary White, the monks are not abandoning ship but only leaving Norcia "for a few days" as the monastery is badly damaged and uninhabitable. She says it's going to take a few days to get things sorted out. Also they are keen that the resources are used not for the monastery at the moment but rather for those displaced and hardest hit. 

8.00 p.m.:

The death toll now stands at 120, many of them women and children.  At 4.33 p.m. an aftershock of 5.4 magnitutde with its epicenter in Norcia struck the region. Overall there have been some 200 aftershocks. Seismologists do not exclude other shocks, Avvenire is reporting. There is some damage to basilica of St. Benedict as well as the historic city walls, known to be among the best preserved in Italy. It is also currently difficult to reach Norcia due to landslides and damaged tunnels. 

For a vivid eyewitness account, check out the blog of Hilary White here

Aug. 25, 15.41

The death toll has now risen to 241, according to reports, and a large 4.3 magnitude aftershock was felt in the region this morning, and another 4.1 tremor at 2.36 pm today. Some 470 aftershocks have since rattled the area since the 6.2 magnitude quake which struck Wednesday morning. 

To donate to the rescue efforts you can make a bank transfer to Caritas Italia, Via Aurelia 796-00165 Rome. Their bank is Banca Popolare Etica, via Paris 17, Rome, IBAN: IT 29 U 05018 03200 000000011113. Specify the donation as: "Colletta terremoto centro Italia" (Central Italy Earthquake Collection).