The first shakes were felt on 14 January 1968: the whole of western Sicily shook, no buildings collapsed but people panicked and decided, fortunately, to sleep outside, wrapped in blankets or in their cars, in the piazzas in towns or in the open countryside. In the middle of the night a terribly violent tremor occurred in fact, in the Valle del Belice, where the towns of Gibellina, Salaparuta, S. Ninfa, Montevago, Partanna, Poggioreale and Santa Margherita Belice suffered dreadful damage. These towns are in the provinces of Trapani and Agrigento that, at the time of the earthquake, were not classified as seismic. 90% of the buildings in the countryside suffered irreparable damage, with serious repercussions on the almost exclusively agricultural economy in the area. The characteristics and age of the buildings aggravated the damage, built mostly from square stones with insufficient mortar, no links between the structural parts and inadequate foundations.
On 25 January, at 10.52, another unexpected grade VII aftershock on the MCS occurred while a team of relief operators was working in the ruins, killing a fireman. The shaking also caused damage in Sciacca and Palermo, where people left schools, offices and houses and once again slept outside.
There was a sequence of six M 5+ earthquakes, making this western Sicily’s largest historical seismic event, beginning with a M 5.2 shock at 12:28 on the 14 January, followed by a M 5.1 event at 13:15 on the same day and a M 5.2 event at 01:33 on 15 January, the main shock at 02:01, and two M 5.2 events at 16:42 on 16 January and at 09:56 on 25 January.
The greatest perceived intensity on the Mercalli scale was X (Intense) at Gibellina, Montevago and Salaparuta. Intensities at Poggioreale, Santa Margherita di Belice, Santa Ninfa, Partanna and Salemi reached IX (Violent) on the scale.
The main area of damage was centred around the valley of the Belice, with worst affected towns being Santa Ninfa, Partanna, Montevago, Santa Margherita di Belice, Gibellina, Salaparuta, Poggioreale. Vita, Salemi, and Camporeale also suffered significant damage.
The official death toll was 231 with a further 623 injured. Other estimates give more than 400 dead with over 1,000 injured. An estimated 100,000 people were made homeless by the earthquakes.
The worst affected buildings were of unreinforced masonry construction that used irregular stones with weak mortar and had roofs consisting of heavy tiles resting on wooden beams. Such buildings collapsed completely in many cases. Houses with load-bearing walls made of regular stone or concrete blocks and better quality mortar performed better, although some were badly damaged.
The immediate relief effort was hampered by a lack of disaster relief planning at both local and provincial levels, excessive bureaucracy, a lack of supplies close to the affected areas and a tendency of refugees to treat outsiders with suspicion.
One year after the earthquakes, many hundreds of people were still living in tents and many of the prefabricated housing units had yet to appear, despite having been paid for; no work had begun on providing permanent housing. Two-thirds of refugee families had still not received their government grant. Nine years after the earthquake, none of the refugees had been placed in new housing, leaving 60,000 still living in temporary accommodation.
The towns of Poggioreale, Gibellina, Vita, Santa Margherita di Belice and Salaparuta were eventually rebuilt in new locations.
Pictures Before the Earthquake:
Pictures After the Earthquake: