L'Aquila rugby touched by tragedy
Enrico Borra and Graham Jenkins
April 12, 2009
L'Aquila Rugby prop Lorenzo Sebastiani (right), pictured with Italy winger Roberto Quartaroli, was one of the many killed by the April 6 earthquake. © esternal.com
A shocking 293 dead and counting. The number of victims of the devastating earthquake that brought death into the Abruzzo region of Italy is sadly growing by the hour.
And the rugby community has not escaped the disaster with at least half a dozen players, many tragically young, having been killed in the catastrophic tremor, registering 6.3 on the Richter Scale, that reduced much of the beautiful centre of L'Aquila to rubble and ruin.
One of them was the promising 20-year-old prop Lorenzo Sebastiani who was found dead by one of his coaches. The former U20 international, who appeared at last year's IRB Junior World Championship in Wales, was building a notable career with Italian second division side L'Aquila Rugby, one of the most famous and successful clubs in the country. The club can boast five national titles (1967, 1969, 1981, 1982 and 1994), two Italian Cups (1973 and 1981) and has played a huge role in the development of the sport in the country, building a reputation along the way for producing some of the best junior rugby prospects in the country.
Italy's current crop of international stars boast many with roots in L'Aquila with the most recent example being Rugby Parma winger Roberto Quartaroli who made his Azzurri bow during this year's Six Nations.
The L'Aquila club, about 60 miles north east of the Italian capital Rome, were quick to rally around in the aftermath of the earthquake that broke of the silence of the night at 3.32am on April 6. The club's players and coaches offered immediate support in the most extreme of situations with little thought to their own safety. One story that emerged involved L'Aquila fullback Dario Pallotta who saved an old couple from sure death by carrying them on his shoulders down the stairs of a their precarious home near the centre of the quake.
"We were in the street after the shake and we heard a woman screaming, " recalled Pallotta, "her old parents were trapped in their apartment. I ran to them through the devastation and was lucky enough to be able to save them both".
Others, like 1999 Rugby World Cup 1999 Italian national team coach Massimo Mascioletti, now L'Aquila head coach, were quick to volunteer their services at the local hospital. "We simply tried to what we could, just trying help people somehow," said Mascioletti.
And as it turned out the region's players were able to help in so many ways in a city that was in need of everything. Many helped to lift the injured, to help carry patients out of the dangerously damaged hospital, to move dead bodies form under the collapsed buildings and to dig with their hands into the mountains of bricks to look for survivors.
Another L'Aquila player, second row Ollie Hodges, originally from Bristol in England, also painted a graphic picture of the devastation. "The scenes in the centre of town were unreal," he told the Bath Chronicle. "It's like a war-zone down there; absolutely horrendous. It's like something from a film. Cars are crushed, and down where we would normally go for a walk and a coffee, the buildings have all crumbled."
The 29-year-old was amongst those who tried to help where they could. "Myself and a few of the boys from the club went out to the hospital to help because the buildings were unstable and they had to evacuate everyone," he said.
"We were carrying beds down the stairs and carrying people out of there. You just do what you can in a situation like that. We wanted to go into the centre to help, but were told to leave it to the experts and get out of there because they don't know whether any more tremors are coming or not.
"I don't know how lucky I am, and thank God I am fine. I was absolutely terrified when I was woken up by the earthquake and I just ran out of my apartment. I really didn't know what was going on at first. It's tragic. What has happened has not really hit me yet but I can tell you I am devastated about Lorenzo."
A priest visits the relief camp set up at L'Aquila's rugby stadium © Getty Images
The historical Tommaso Fattori rugby stadium and the Acquasanta rugby fields were both offered for use by the Civil Protection to shelter those displaced by the disaster and the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) was also one of the first associations to offer help to the Abruzzo victims.
Gianfranco Dondi, FIR president, started a very intense fund rising process almost immediately with the backing of all the 1,000 plus Italian clubs and it is likely that part of the revenue from one of the three autumn internationals that will be played in Italy later this year (against New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa) will be donated to aid the more than 40,000 people now homeless.
And the fund-raising is not limited to Italy's rugby community with clubs across the continent rallying around as you would expect at such a trying time. Premiership side Newcastle are just one club that has pledged support and begun its own fund-raising initiatives.
"We played a European Challenge Cup game in L'Aquila back in 2005, and my overriding memory from the trip there was the warm welcome given to us by the people of the town, who have now been so tragically affected by this earthquake," said Falcons chairman, Dave Thompson.
Good Friday was declared a national mourning in Italy and flags flew at half mast across the country. A huge open-air funeral with more than 10,000 people in attendance was held in L'Aquila at the police academy as none of the local churches were deemed safe enough for the ceremony. The Vatican also gave special permission for the mass to be held on what is normally the only day of the year when the Catholic Church does not celebrate mass.
As the dust settles, questions are already being asked about the lack of guidance given by the city's authorities. L'Aquila prop Emmanuel Giacoponi, who joined the club last year, was quick to point the finger in an online blog.
"There had been minor tremors since January, which gradually got stronger," said the 22-year-old who was staying in the players' residence at the time of the earthquake. "I don't understand why the authorities didn't give us more warning of the threat of stronger quakes, and how to behave in the event. This could have saved lives, including that of my teammate Lorenzo."
The immediate future of L'Aquila Rugby remains unsure with the club's facilities amongst those buildings damaged by the quake but the players and officials remain committed - both to the club and to their city.