An earthquake in Sicily kills over 100,000 people and destroys several towns on this day in 1908. The 7.5-magnitude tremor off the coast of the large island was also responsible for deaths on the Italian mainland.
Sicily is situated near the spot where the European and African continental plates collide. The island endured a horrible earthquake in 1783 in which an estimated 30,000 people died, and in the 125 years following, there were another 20 major earthquakes. None of these subsequent quakes were particularly deadly, though, and the population of Sicily grew to about 3.8 million people by 1900. One hundred and fifty-eight thousand of these people resided in Messina, a port city just across a strait from Reggio on the Italian mainland.
On the night of December 27, the city's hotels were full of guests in town to see a performance of the opera Aida. At 5:21 the following morning, a large tremor, centered only five miles deep and just off the coast, suddenly shook the city for a full 35 seconds. An eight-foot tsunami crashed about 100 yards inland, but most of the deaths in Messina were a result of buildings collapsing. A military barracks gave way, killing nearly everyone inside; in total, about one of ever three residents perished. All electricity, gas, water and sewage lines were destroyed. Eighty-seven of the 91 churches in Messina were demolished. The prison was also destroyed and escapees reportedly pillaged and looted while would-be rescuers attempted to pull out survivors from beneath a million tons of rubble and debris. The last survivors--two children--were pulled out a remarkable 18 days after the quake.
There was also widespread destruction and death on other parts of the island, bringing the overall death toll to 120,000. In Reggio, a 15-foot deadly tsunami came ashore. Two hours later, the tsunami hit Malta. Still, Messina was by the far the worst hit. Most of its buildings were not well built, using rounded stones, weak mortar and unsupported cross beams. To make matters worse, it took a week for the Italian government to respond and it wasn't until January 9 that martial law and some sense of security was established. Foreign military ships proved to be invaluable, transporting the thousands of injured to hospitals in Naples and Rome. Forty-three governments ended up providing relief and the Red Cross contributed $1 million in aid.
A far more rigorous building code was established in Sicily following this earthquake but it took a very long time for the island to rebound. Fifty years later, there were still 10,000 people living in temporary housing established in the aftermath of the quake.