This Day In History: A Huge Earthquake devastates Southern Italy and Sicily (1908)


On this day in history the most destructive earthquake in European history is recorded. The center of the quake was in the sea between the Italian mainland and the island of Sicily. This area has been plagued by earthquakes since time immemorial and they have regularly killed many people and destroyed cities and towns.  On this date in 1908, in the early morning, at approximately 5 am,  a massive quake strikes the Straits of Messina.  The earthquake was 7.5 on the Richter scale. The earthquake was so powerful that it caused the shoreline to sink some feet and the maps of the area had to be changed in the aftermath of the quake.

The earthquake leveled the cities of Messina in Sicily and Reggio di Calabria in the province of Calabria (toe of Italy). The earthquake also destroyed many smaller towns and villages.  The housing in the region was poorly constructed and there were no regulations controlling where and how they were built. This meant that many buildings and dwellings collapsed and trapping the inhabitants inside. Countless people were killed in their beds by collapsing walls and roofs and more experienced the horror of being buried alive.  The lucky ones simply ran out into the streets and the fields with only the clothes on their backs and all their possessions often lost.  The earthquake also caused a massive tsunami, a huge wave that crashed far inland. The huge wave killed many who had survived the initial earthquake and prevented a relief operation. The area was devastated and basic supplies were in short supply. Up to 90% of Reggio di Calabria was destroyed and there occurred a similar level of destruction in Messina. The two cities are almost opposite each other across the Straits of Messina. The city of Reggio di Calabria still bears the scars of the earthquake. Following the earthquake, there were to be many more minor quakes and these brought down many ruins and killed many rescuers. Heavy storms made the rescue efforts very difficult as rains turned the area into a quagmire.

Earthquake damage to a Church in Messina (1908)

The earthquake is believed to have killed some 100,000 people, but the true figure will never be known.  In 1693, over fifty thousand had been killed in an earthquake. In 1783 thousands of more people died in another devastating earthquake. In the 1980s southern Italy, especially the area around Naples was devastated by an earthquake that killed thousands. The earthquake of 1908 was so devastating because it struck before people had a chance to escape and when they were asleep.