Earthquake fever hits Rome as some fear "the big one"

ROME Wed May 11, 2011 11:51am EDT

Tourists look at downtown Rome from Pincio's balcony May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Tourists look at downtown Rome from Pincio's balcony May 11, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

ROME (Reuters) - A prediction that a huge earthquake would destroy Rome on Wednesday prompted fear in some people and giggles of ridicule in others but officials assured the populace that the Eternal City would not be rubble by midnight.

The Internet-driven story of an impending tremor has dominated blogs, social networks and talk shows for days, so much so that authorities from the mayor down have issued statements saying earthquakes are impossible to predict.

That did not deter thousands of people from staying away from work and heading for the countryside or the parks.

According to some media reports, as many as 18 percent of city employees called in sick and Rome's notorious traffic did appear lighter than normal for a Wednesday in May.

One neighbourhood that came down with a bad case of earthquake fever was Chinatown, where many shopkeepers kept stores shuttered and put up signs reading saying they were closed for weddings, inventories or a wedding.

"They have all gone away because they are scared of the earthquake," said Bangladeshi street seller Shouman who normally receives his cheap goods from a Chinese salesman.

The fear was caused by one faction of the followers of Raffaele Bendandi, who died more than 30 years ago.

The self-proclaimed scientist, who used a mix of seismology and cosmology and claimed to have forecast numerous earthquakes, calculated that a "big one" would hit Rome on May 11, 2011.

The majority of Romans were sceptical and indeed by mid day the earth had not moved.

"Nothing is going to happen," said delivery man Vittorio Giansanti, giggling as he went about his normal work in the same Piazza Vittorio neighbourhood.

Bendandi, who died in 1979 at the age of 86, believed earthquakes were the result of the combined movements of the planets, the moon and the sun and were perfectly predictable.

In 1923 he forecast a quake would hit the central Adriatic region of the Marches on January 2 the following year. He was wrong by two days but nearly precise prediction won him the nickname "earthquake predictor" in the media.

Bendandi's fame grew and in 1927 he was awarded a knighthood by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. During his long career his theories were studied by astronomers and seismologists but roundly debunked.

To shake up the mood even more, another faction of Bendani's disciples said Bendani had never pinpointed May 11, 2011 as the date for the big one.

They said that according to the positions of the planets, the actual earthquake would be on April 6, 2521. (Additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri; Editing by Barry Moody and Andrew Heavens)