August 1953: Deadly earthquake flattens Zakynthos, Kefalonia – “We said that the result came”

In August 1953 three earthquakes will level the city of Zakynthos, Kefalonia and Ithaca . Egelados’ rage left 455 dead and 2,412 injured . The work of reconstruction, assistance from abroad and the ban on immigration by the Papagou government .

The most catastrophic earthquakes in the history of modern Greece occurred that damned summer of 1953, on the picturesque Ionian islands. The numbers are creepy. The wrath of the bowels of the earth left behind 455 dead, 2,412 wounded and 21 missing. The much-sung city of Zakynthos, the famous Argostoli and the picturesque Lixouri were literally leveled. There was no stone left on the stone.

Out of a total of 33,000 buildings, 26,659 collapsed and another 2,780 were severely damaged , while the fury of nature ended with the fires that broke out after the passage of Egelados in Zakynthos and raged for days, resulting in the burning of unique monuments. Panagia Faneromeni that was built in the 15th century (only its bell tower remains) and the elegant building of the Public Library with the thousands of volumes of books that were unfortunately reduced to ashes. 

It all started that carefree hot morning on Sunday, August 9, 1953. At 09:41 a.m., the ground began to shake causing panic. The quake measured 6.4 on the Richter scale and focused on Stavros, a small village in northern Ithaca. Two days later, at 05.32 in the morning, the Ionian Islands wake up from the disgusting roar of a new great vibration that reaches 6.8 Richter. The ground shakes for a long time. Many people do not manage to get out of their homes to be saved, as the walls fall down in seconds and bury them under tons of damage. The epicenter was reported below the Pacific Ocean floor, however; no tsunami alert was issued. The quake affected the island and neighboring Kefalonia, especially in Argostoli and Lixouri. 


AP image

On the same day, the movements of the tectonic plates cause ten more aftershocks of magnitude up to 5.3 Richter. The people of the Ionian may have learned to live with the earthquakes, but what they felt now was very different from the past. They do not know how to react. They work mechanically with the instinct of survival. In the villages, parents bury their children and vice versa. Before they can cry, they must think about how they will manage to stay alive. Housewives are immersed in the ruins risking their lives in order to save what they can from their lives and in the squares whole families gather, basically laying on the ground to sleep at night. The adults try to reassure the children by telling them that the evil is over. But the worst is yet to come. 

The deadliest blow 

Exactly at 11.27 the next morning, Wednesday 12 August 1953, that familiar deafening groan that foretells the coming of death reaches the ears of the people again. This time, however, it is stronger. It is reminiscent of the tragic description of the evangelist Matthew when Jesus breathed his last on the Cross: “And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; The earthquake has a magnitude of 7.2 on the Richter scale with a focus on southeastern Kefalonia that rose … 60 cm.Screams are heard from everywhere: “My Lady!”. The earth was shaking and stirring your life. Screams of agony, clicks from crumbling walls, the sound of broken glass and crumbling wood create a spooky backdrop. “It was impossible to stand up. The earth waved like the sea. “We believed that the fate of the world had come,” will those who managed to get out of this hell alive.

A huge cloud of dust from the collapses suddenly covered the sun and it became almost night, even if it was noon. “This indescribable outburst lasted ten seconds that seemed like ten centuries. Immediately after, absolute silence prevailed. As if everything died and you are the only one alive, wrapped in a thick cloud that has the smell of dry lime, burnt tar, sulfur and fresh soil “will write the envoy of” Vimatos “in Kefalonia P. Linardos (sheet of August 14, 1953 ). Almost no building remained standing. In the capital of the island, Argostoli, only two houses were saved, the ground floor of the mansion of the Gintilini – Kosmetatos family and another one next to the Korgialenio Library which also collapsed. ΣLixouri remained in its place only the local nursing home and the mansion of the Iakovatos family that houses the library of the area, while among the few remaining houses in Livathos was that of the British philhellene lord Byron. 

The Prime Minister Alexander Papagos startled by the size of the disaster and seek ways to address the dramatic situation in which they have received the Ionian islands. Fearing the outbreak of a new wave of refugees after the civil war (1946-1949), it is announced that the evacuation of the population from the affected islands will be banned for the first time, thus causing feelings of anger and frustration. Units of the Armed Forces and the Red Cross go to Kefalonia, Ithaca and Zakynthos.According to the cinematic news of the time, “while the ground is still shaking, the Greek Army, a worthy guardian and protector of the fatherland, fulfills its duty with great self-sacrifice. With its excellent technical equipment, it clears the ruins, opens the roads, saves everything that can be saved “.

The first force to rush to the aid from abroad is Israel, which incidentally was formed into a state just five years earlier. Navy ships arrive at the port of Flat Argostoli, followed by those of Great Britain, the United States, Italy, France and New Zealand. Together they helped in the rescue and care work, while the transport of seriously injured, supplies and medical equipment was done by air. 

Build from scratch 

The task of reconstruction was not easy.Temporary camps are being set up to house the survivors, the rubble is being cleaned and the main electricity and water supply networks are soon to be reopened. By the end of the 1950s, 27,394 new homes had been built under the new, stricter seismic regulations. With the help of Great Britain, Sami and Vlachata were rebuilt in Kefalonia and with the help of France, Agia Efimia and Lakithra. The truth is that the new settlements were built according to modern design standards, something that resulted in ignoring their historical physiognomy, with the exception of the public buildings of the city of Zakynthos that preserved the Ionian architecture.

Kourkoumelata is an exception, as the Kefalonian shipowner George Vergotis decided to rebuild his village from scratch, taking into account the history of his place, resulting in today being one of the most beautiful settlements on the island. 

Zakynthos 1953 (AP image)

The aftershocks continued in the Ionian Islands until the end of September 1953, many of which were above 5 Richter, while on October 16 a magnitude 5.2 earthquake was recorded and on October 20 5.1 Richter. The temporary shelters where people lived were wooden and this time they endured. But when the time passed and the government ban on immigration from Kefalonia, Ithaca and Zakynthos came, many decided to leave with their families in search of a safer area. They went to Patras, Ioannina, Athens, Thessaloniki and other big cities.

According to official figures, in 1951 the population of the three islands was 92,706 inhabitants. Twenty years later, in 1971, the census showed that there were 66,929 left, that is, there was a decrease in the population of 27.8%. The islands as the years went by gradually began to develop again. New cities like the one in Zakynthos have completely taken the place of the old ones, which will live forever in our memory and imagination. After the savage destruction, the new settlements are the ones that now accept the fragrant man of the Ionian Sea.


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