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Italian Quake Topples 15th-Century Landmark But Tremors Fail To Damage St. Francis Basilica In Assisi

Wed., Oct. 15, 1997

Another strong earthquake jolted central Italy on Tuesday, toppling a belltower in the Umbrian town of Foligno but sparing the quake-ravaged St. Francis Basilica in Assisi.

The quake was felt far south, rattling Naples, some 130 miles away. In Rome, 110 miles from Assisi, a deep crack opened up in the cupola of St. Andrea delle Fratte church, not far from the Trevi Fountain.

The National Institute of Geophysics put the magnitude at 4.9.

In Foligno, technicians were hovering in a cherry picker trying to stabilize the town hall’s tottering 15th-century tower when the temblor brought the top portion crashing down.

In the piazza below, onlookers wept.

Tuesday’s was the most powerful in a series of strong aftershocks following twin quakes on Sept. 26 that devastated parts of the Umbria and Marche regions.

In the epicenter of Sellano, 20 miles southeast of Assisi, the streets were piled high with stones. A policeman was slightly injured by falling rocks there and the tower over the municipal building collapsed while the city council was in session. Stones crashed through the roof.

“We have looked death in the face,” Sellano Mayor Fulvio Maltempi told reporters. The church belltower and a two-story house in the town also crumbled.

Premier Romano Prodi called the latest quake “anguishing” and promised to “mobilize all our energies for rescue and reconstruction.”

In Rome, a deep crack sliced a 17th-century fresco at St. Andrea delle Fratte, a church just blocks from Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. The famed belltower by Baroque architect Borromini appeared spared.

The 13th-century Assisi basilica suffered no new damage, said the Rev. Nicola Giandomenico, a spokesman for the Franciscan order. The basilica, a major pilgrimage site, was heavily hit by the earlier quakes.

“Not even a piece of plaster fell down,” Giandomenico said.

Already heavily damaged by the September quakes, the Foligno tower lost more pieces during a trio of temblors Sunday. On Tuesday, it completely gave way.

Experts had hoped to begin shoring up the tower, Foligno’s symbol, but had held off because of strong gusts earlier in the day. Foligno is about 10 miles from Assisi.

No one was injured in the collapse. The tower’s pair of bells, together weighing 5 tons, fell into the jagged remains of the tower’s base.

“I’m destroyed,” said a tearful Foligno Mayor Maurizio Salari.

Tuesday’s quake struck just hours after a team in Assisi used a crane to place a cage-like cap of scaffolding over a crumbling outside wall that extends above the roof of St. Francis Basilica to hold it together.

Throughout the central Apennine region, the rocky backbone of Italy, phone switchboards at police and fire offices were jammed by callers frightened by the latest quake.

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