On Monday 28 December 1908, from about 05:20 to 05:21, an earthquake of 7.1 on the moment magnitude scale occurred. Its epicentre was in the Strait of Messina which separates the busy port city of Messina in Sicily and Reggio Calabria on the Italian mainland. Its precise epicentre has been pinpointed to the northern Ionian Sea area close to the narrowest section of the Strait, the location of Messina. It had a depth of 5–6 miles (8–10 km).
The earthquake almost levelled Messina. At least 91% of structures in Messina were destroyed or irreparably damaged and some 75,000 people were killed in the city and suburbs. Reggio Calabria and other locations in Calabria also suffered heavy damage, with some 25.000 people killed. Reggio's historic centre was almost completely eradicated.The number of casualties is based on the 1901 and 1911 census data. It was the most destructive earthquake to ever strike Europe. The ground shook for some 30 to 40 seconds, and the damage was widespread, with destruction felt within a 300-kilometer (186-mile) radius. In Calabria, the ground shook violently from Scilla to south of Reggio, provoking landslides inland in the Reggio area and along the sea-cliff from Scilla to Bagnara. In the Calabrian commune of Palmi on the Tyrrhenian coast, there was almost total devastation that left 600 dead. Damage was also inflicted along the eastern Sicilian coast, but outside of Messina, it was not as badly hit as Calabria. The mesoseismal area was confined near the coast along a 1–4 km wide belt that shook and destroyed Messina and surrounding villages. Catania, the largest city in eastern Sicily, did not incur notable damage.
A young doctor who escaped with his life later recounted that, moments before the earth started to rumble and violently shake Messina, there had been a sinister whistling sound which he likened to a thousand red hot irons burning in the water. Other survivors reported that there were three separate and different movements during the 30-40 second mainshock: the first shaking backwards and forwards, the second thrusting violently upwards, with the third moving in.a circular motion. All accounts concur that it was the second upwards motion that caused the widespread destruction in Messina; the accompanying noise described as having been exactly like that made by a fast train in a tunnel.
The elevated death toll was due to the fact that most people were asleep, and killed outright or buried alive in their beds, as their houses collapsed on top of them. Thousands were trapped under debris, suffering horrific injuries of which many would die. One week before the earthquake, 160,000 inhabitants were counted in the entire Messina commune. On 28 December, Messina was even more crowded than usual, due to the number of overnight visitors from outlying areas who had come to the city to see a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's opera "Aida," which had been staged the previous evening at the Vittorio Emanuele II theatre.
About ten minutes after the earthquake, the sea on both sides of the Strait suddenly withdrew a 12-meter (39-foot) tsunami swept in, and three waves struck nearby coasts. It impacted hardest along the Calabrian coast and inundated Reggio Calabria after the sea had receded 70 meters from the shore. The entire Reggio seafront was destroyed and numbers of people who had gathered there perished. Nearby Villa San Giovanni was also badly hit. Along the coast between Lazzaro and Pellaro, houses and a railway bridge were washed away.
In Messina, the tsunami also caused more devastation and deaths; many of the survivors of the earthquake had fled to the relative safety of the seafront to escape their collapsing houses. The second and third tsunami waves, coming in rapid succession and higher than the first, raced over the harbour, smashed boats docked at the pier, and broke parts of the sea wall. After engulfing the port and 100 yards inland beyond the harbour, the waves swept away people, a number of ships that had been anchored in the harbour, fishing boats and ferries, and inflicted further damage on the edifices within the zone which had remained standing after the shock.
The ships that were still attached to their moorings collided with one another but did not incur major damage. Afterwards Messina harbour was filled with floating wreckage and the corpses of drowned people and animals. Towns and villages along the eastern coast of Sicily were assaulted by high waves causing deaths and damage to boats and property. Two hours later the tsunami struck Malta. About 2000 people were killed by the tsunami in Messina, the eastern coast of Sicily, and in Reggio Calabria and its coastal environs.
Messina lost almost half its population and the entire historical city centre was devastated including the Norman cathedral which had withstood previous earthquakes such as the severe one in 1783, just the perimeter walls and apses remained standing. The Messina shoreline was irrevocably altered as large sections of the coast had sunk several feet into the sea. Houses, churches, palaces and monuments, military barracks: commercial, municipal and public buildings had all collapsed entirely or were severely damaged. Many structures were cracked shells, roofless, windowless and standing upright precariously. A boys' boarding school was pulverised, burying the students. A total of 348 railway workers were killed when the two railway stations crumbled. Several foreign consulates were reduced to piles of rubble with only their respective standards left intact. American consul Arthur S. Cheney and his wife Laura were killed. The French consul and his children also lost their lives. Ethel Ogston, wife of the British Vice-Consul died instantly after being struck by a falling iron balcony as she attempted to escape through the streets with her husband, Alfred and small daughter, both of whom survived. Former US Consul and Messina correspondent for Associated Press Joseph Pierce and his family were crushed to death when their damaged home, close to the port, was brought down by the force of the waves created by the tsunami. A number of notable Italians were among the dead including politicians, the Attorney General of Messina Crescenzo Grillo, local patriots of the Italian unification and members of the nobility and literati. The Chief of Police died in his home, killed by a fallen beam. Tenor Angelo Gamba who had performed onstage in Aida the evening before the earthquake also lost his life together with his family when the Hotel Trinacria collapsed. Miraculously the other performers in the operatic company, including Hungarian soprano Paola Koraleck (who performed in the role of Aida), were pulled out alive from the hotel's wreckage.
The earthquake wrecked the commercial section along Messina's Corso Vittorio Emanuele that skirted the seafront which included the elegant "palazzatta". This was a long sequence of seamless 17th-century buildings that fronted the sickle-shaped harbour and most had sustained irreparable damage. The shaking was especially intense in the port area resulting in the permanent displacement of the stone pavings in a "wave-like pattern". Damage was heaviest in the old historic centre and the low, level central and northern sections of the city due to the soft sandy soil; it was less severe in the mountainous western part as the structures were built on firmer terrain such as Gonzaga Fort which was unscathed and remains to date. The area between Cathedral Square and the Civic Hospital was obliterated as was the Boccetta zone. Via Porta Imperiale was also struck particularly hard. The 17th-century Real Cittadella, which guarded the harbour, was partially destroyed. Huge crevasses and fissures opened in the streets and these as well as the mounds of rubble, and falling masonry, hampered those survivors who had fled from their razed homes to seek safety. The main thoroughfares Via Garibaldi and Via Cavour were rendered impassable by the hillocks of rubble and debris that measured 5 meters (16 ft) in height. Families had become separated and a torrential downpour of rain that had begun only minutes before the earthquake added to the confusion, impeding visibility along with the darkness and thick clouds of dust. Fires broke out, caused by broken gas pipes, which added to the chaos and destruction. One such fire gutted the City Hall. The ground continued to shake with repeated aftershocks causing remaining structures to topple down onto the ruins of demolished edifices killing and injuring rescuers and those who had survived the mainshock. Survivors described having seen horribly disfigured bodies and injured people badly maimed and screaming for help. Cobbler Francesco Missiani and his family came upon two dying girls, both had suffered appalling head and chest injuries. The same man picked up a baby but it died in his arms. Processions of naked survivors carrying pictures of saints appeared in the streets. People with bare hands searched through the debris for trapped loved ones. Rescuers at the scene managed to save some people clinging precariously to gaping upper storeys, windows and teetering balconies by using ropes to pull them to safety. SImilar scenes of destruction were replicated in Reggio Calabria. Its historical centre was eradicated and the monumental Aragonese Castle, one of the few edifices to have survived the 1783 earthquake, was badly damaged. With the exception of one mansion, all the structures in its principal thoroughfare Corso Garibaldi were destroyed including the Cathedral, municipal buildings and palazzi. Only about 50 houses remained standing in Reggio.
Both hospitals in Messina and Reggio Calabria lay in ruins with nearly all the doctors and nurses dead. The injured in the two cities had no medical support or medicine until outside relief arrived. Telegraph lines were severed and railway lines mangled making communication immpossible. Most of Messina's officials were killed or gravely injured, along with almost the entire police force and soldiers of the garrison who perished when their respective barracks collapsed. Prisoners who had escaped death when the prison fell, began looting property and even robbing corpses of their jewellery. Peasants from nearby rural villages joined the looters. Troops were soon sent to the city and Martial Law was declared.
Rescuers searched through the ruins for weeks, and whole families were still being pulled out alive days following the earthquake but thousands remained buried there. Among the bodies recovered were those of mothers still clutching their babies. Buildings in the area had not been constructed for earthquake resistance, having been built out of small stones and carelessly-applied mortar with heavy tiled roofs, ornamental cornices, unsupported cross beams and vulnerable foundations on soft soil. Many of the edifices had four or five storeys.
According to Gianluca Valensise, a seismologist at Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, the earthquake was caused by a large, low-angle SE-dipping, blind normal fault, lying mainly offshore in the Strait of Messina, between plates. Its upper projection intersects the Earth surface on the western, Sicilian side of the Strait. Italy sits along the boundary zone of the African Continental plate, and this plate is pushing against the seafloor underneath Europe at a rate of 25 millimeters (1 inch) per year. This causes vertical displacement, which in turn can cause earthquakes. The earthquake was recorded by 110 seismographic stations around the world.
The Strait of Messina is part of the regional tectonic feature known as the Calabrian Arc, an area of differential uplift deriving from the dynamics of the Ionian and South Tyrrhenian tectonic units, two of the lithosphere blocks of microplates recognised in the highly fragmented Italian portion of the Africa-Eurasia contact. A number of the strongest earthquakes that took place in the last centuries occurred in the Calabrian Arc such as the 1783 and 1905 Calabrian earthquakes as well as the more catastrophic 1908 Messina earthquake.
Records indicate that considerable seismic activity occurred in the areas around the Strait of Messina several months prior to 28 December; it increased in intensity beginning 1 November. On 10 December a 4 magnitude earthquake caused damage to a few buildings in Novara di Sicilia and Montalbano Elicona, both in the Province of Messina. A total of 293 aftershocks took place between 28 December 1908 and 11 March 1909.
In 2008 it was proposed that the concurrent tsunami was not generated by the earthquake, but rather by a large undersea landslide it triggered. The probable source of the tsunami was offshore of Giardini Naxos (40 km south of Messina) on the Sicilian coast where a large submarine landslide body with a headwall scarf was revealed on a Bathymetric map of the Ionian seafloor.
News of the disaster was carried to Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti by Italian torpedo boats to Nicotera, where the telegraph lines were still working, but that was not accomplished until midnight at the end of the day. Rail lines in the area had been destroyed, often along with the railway stations.
The Italian navy and army responded and began searching, treating the injured, providing food and water, and evacuating refugees (as did every ship). Giolitti imposed martial law with all looters to be shot, which extended to survivors foraging for food. King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Elena arrived two days after the earthquake to assist the victims and survivors.
The disaster made headlines worldwide and international relief efforts were launched. With the help of the Red Cross and sailors of the Russian and British fleets, search and cleanup were expedited. The Russian battleships Tsesarevich, and Slava and the cruisers Admiral Makarov, and Bogatyr, British battleship Exmouth and the cruisers Euryalus, Minerva, and Sutlej were ordered to provide assistance; the SS Afonwen was in Messina harbor during the quake (anchored in 45 fathoms (80 m) of water, but there were only 30 fathoms (55 m) when she sailed full of refugees). The French battleships Justice and Vérité, and three torpedo boat destroyers were ordered to Messina. The U.S. Navy's Great White Fleet and supply ships USS Celtic and USS Culgoa were also ordered to assist. Other nations' ships also responded.
In the years following 1908, precautions were taken when the reconstruction of Messina began in 1909, building architecture that would be able to withstand earthquakes of variable magnitude, if one should strike again. Initially, authorities adopted a plan to demolish the remaining structures of Messina and transfer the city and its port elsewhere in Sicily but this was discarded after strong protests from the Messinesi.
Among the few structures spared by the earthquake was the medieval Annunziata dei Catalani church. San Ranieri lighthouse, Forte del Santissimo Salvatore, Montorsoli's Fountain of Neptune and the Barbera spinning mill which was later converted to a museum to house the art treasures salvaged from the ruins. The Real Cittadella, Matagrifone Castle and Monti di Pieta remained standing but sustained considerable damage. The 16th-century Church of Ringo in.the fisherman's quarter of the same name along the northern Messina riviera withstood the shock and survives to date. The "Scalinata Santa Barbara" in the ancient quarter of Tirone and many of the houses known as " le mignuni" in.local dialect, located in the slum of Avignone also survived relatively intact. In Reggio Calabria the Palazzo Nesci was one of the few 19th century structures to withstand the earthquake.
The new city of Messina was constructed on the rubble of the old city using the plan of a modern layout of a "city regularly cut up like a checker board" with buildings of uniform size and height as presented in 1911 by architect Luigi Borzi. This necessitated the demolition of a number of edifices that were salvageable but did not conform to the new urban plan.
Engineer Pietro De Nava designed a similar modern checkerboard urban.layout for Reggio Calabria.
In the wake of the earthquake many of the homeless residents of Messina and Calabria were relocated to various parts of Sicily and other regions of mainland Italy. Others, including the.majority of the survivors from the poverty-stricken Avignone quarter of Messina, were forced to emigrate to America. In 1909 the cargo ship Florida carried 850 such passengers away from Naples. Lost in a dense fog, the Florida collided with the Republic, a luxury passenger liner. Three people aboard the Florida were killed instantly. Within minutes, pandemonium broke out on the ship. The captain of the Florida, Angelo Ruspini, used extreme measures to regain control of the desperate passengers, including firing gunshots into the air. Eventually the survivors were rescued at sea and brought into the New York harbour where they would start a new life.
The disaster affected the local economy and Messina faced a temporary depopulation after so many homeless survivors had sought refuge elsewhere; in particular Catania and Palermo where a large number found work as artisans. It has been estimated that only 19,000 remained with just 2000 in the old city centre. However, there was soon a huge influx of migrants, mostly from nearby Sicilian and Calabrian localities who were needed as necessary labourers for the reconstruction. According to the 1911 census the population of Messina had increased to 127,000. Among these were many Messinesi who had returned to their native city. Men notably outnumbered the women which resulted in a decrease in marriages.
As late as the 1950s families were still living in the wooden.barracks erected in.the Tirone area to provide temporary housing for the homeless survivors.
Because of its dearth of historical buildings due to the catastrophic 1908 earthquake, as well as the 1943 Allied bombardment during World War II, Messina has been called "the city without memory".