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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Europe's Deadliest Earthquake, December 28, 1908

Today in 1908, a devastating earthquake struck the Straits of Messina, the body of water between the island of Sicily and the Italian mainland. The earthquake and the tsunami it caused ultimately led to the deaths of more than 100,000 people, making it the most deadly earthquake in European history.

The Mediterranean Sea is located over the area where the African tectonic plate meets the Eurasian plate. The African plate is slowly pushing itself into the Eurasian plate at a rate of one inch per year, making the entire area, and especially southern Italy and Sicily, susceptible to severe earthquakes. There are many recorded instances of deadly quakes there dating back to the time of the Roman Empire. In fact, there are indications of 2422 damaging earthquakes between the years 1000 and 1980.

The 1908 earthquake was especially deadly for two reasons: first, it occurred at 5:20 in the morning local time. At this early hour, most people were still in bed, not outside where they would’ve been in less danger from falling buildings. Second, the epicenter of the quake was between the city of Messina in Sicily and Reggio di Calabria on the Italian mainland. At that time, Messina had a population of 150,000 and Reggio di Calabria had a population of 50,000. There were also dozens of smaller towns and villages crowded along the coastline.

Had the earthquake occurred on dry land, the damage would’ve been great; it is now estimated that the initial quake registered a 7.5 on the Richter scale. But with the epicenter being underwater, a 40-foot high tsunami was created that added massively to the carnage. The two major cities on either side of the Straits were 90% destroyed and all means of communication with the outside world were severed. Smaller tremors occurred over the next few days, collapsing more buildings and claiming more victims.

It took two days before the first help begin to arrive by ship. The coastline was so changed that many of the sailors could no longer recognize the area. In some places, land near the coast had sunk several feet into the sea.

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