A Question of Faith in the Face of Disaster

Emma-Jane Kirby talks about how reporting on the two earthquakes that hit the small Italian village of San Giuliano di Puglia in 2002 made her question her faith.

Emma-Jane Kirby talks about how reporting on the two earthquakes that hit the small Italian village of San Giuliano di Puglia in 2002 made her question her faith.

All the journalists were situated above the town on a hill, and were reporting on the first earthquake by satellite trucks. But the tragedy only really hit home when we got some time in between broadcasts to go down into the town and walk around.

The whole community was out sobbing in the street - old and young together. Every single house had been damaged; the ground looked as if it had been shelled. It was like a war zone.

Everyone had gathered outside the school. It was just a foot high scrap heap. You couldn’t believe that anyone had been pulled out alive. I remember seeing all these firemen and rescue workers who had been on shift for more than 24 hours. They wouldn’t to go home.

There was this huge surge of excitement because they thought they’d pulled a child out alive. Everybody desperately wanted this child to be alive, so they were cheering. Then it went absolutely silent. The child was dead. It was such a horrible sick feeling.

Later in the afternoon I went down to the sports hall, which was the temporary morgue. I went - not as a journalist, or just a person behind the camera - I went as a fellow human being as well as a fellow Catholic to say prayers and to say, ‘I’m really sorry that this has happened to you’. I didn’t want to intrude; yet I wanted to pay my respects.

Journalists weren’t allowed the sports hall. In fact, the police frisked you to make sure you didn’t have any recording equipment or even a note pad. But I don’t think anything had prepared me for what I was about to see.

It’s a terrible thing to admit, but I was actually frightened of seeing all these dead children. It was like somebody taking a flash into the dark and you see that light imprinted on to the back of your mind forever and ever.

And its an ugly thought that journalists like us raise our profiles on the backs of stories such as these. I just wanted to stay in the shower forever and wash off the fact that I was pushing my career forward on the back of twenty-six tiny children’s deaths.

It was a basketball court. In one corner were two or three basketballs and in the rest of the basketball court there were twenty-six white coffins. I was shocked to see how small the coffins were, and they were all open. Some of the children were sitting up in their coffins. They were a sort of grey colour and very battered and bruised. Their families had sat them up so they could dress them in their favourite football colours.

One little boy was being dressed by a Red Cross worker who was sobbing as he was doing it. Another child was being cuddled by his big sister - who couldn’t have been more than twelve. She was saying to him, ‘It’s okay, we’ll let you go back to sleep. We’re just putting your football kit on then we’ll let you go back to sleep’.

There was a sort of wailing going on in the whole hall and then suddenly above the wailing there was this sort of mad cry which went on and on. It was a young father - he was in his early thirties, and covered in dirt. He’d obviously been in the rubble searching for his daughter. In one hand he was holding her Barbie doll and in the other a rosary, and he was shouting up to the ceiling of the basketball court, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ It was unbearable.

The families had covered the faces of those who had been very badly bruised and battered. One of them was a girl - she must have been about six. Although her face was covered, her family had pulled her hands from the covers and they were just kissing them. It was absolutely dreadful to see - quite shocking. All the families were pressing their child’s favourite toys and teddies, paintings and schoolwork on to them as if to comfort them.

Of course you question your faith. You question every single time you see these things. You question all the time, how can these children die? But, the only comfort I had was knowing that these grieving families did believe in God, because I think that faith could be the only rock that could get them through it.

I’ve known a number of people who have lost family and children and the ones with faith seem to manage, or perhaps to digest their grief more easily. That’s not to say that they hurt any less, they hurt just the same, but I kept thinking, ‘Thank God this community does have faith’.

‘Oh God, can this be happening again…’

The second earthquake struck while I was about to file a live report. All of a sudden there was this growling, very loud growling noise. The stone stairs that I was sitting on began to shake like the start-up of a roller coaster ride. I could see the wall shaking in front of me and the cars swaying. I was absolutely terror struck, I couldn’t move, I was rooted.

Then I heard this sudden screaming. A family - a mother and father and two children, a boy of about nine and a girl of about six or seven - where screaming in terror. Their eyes were wide open and their mouths were just completely open in a big, sort of, round scream.

The parents were shepherding them away from the houses and into the middle of the road. They were running. I don’t know where they were running to but they were just running. And again, there was a wailing sound. I don’t speak fluent Italian but you just knew that people were screaming, ‘Oh God! Can it be happening to us again? Can it really be happening?’

In that moment, I heard in my headphones, ‘Live now to our correspondent in San Guiliano. What is the latest?’ And I had to say, ‘The latest is that we’re in the middle of a second earthquake’.

I honestly don’t really remember what I said because I was still waiting for the stairs to crack underneath me. I was shaking like a leaf and I don’t know why I didn’t fling down the microphone and run for it. But you’re conditioned to think, ‘Right, I’m live on air, so go ahead’.

After I had finished the broadcast, Foreign Traffic (in London) had alerted everyone to the fact that there had been a second earthquake and that I’d been live on air. As you can imagine, a queue of outlets wanted to speak to me.

Margaret, my traffic controller said, ‘Emma Jane, I have a queue of people waiting to speak to you, but I’m not going to pass you to anybody until I have your word that you’re safe and that you’re not in any danger’. That was so nice. I suddenly realised that somebody thought more of me than just being a voice, the ‘gob on a stick’, is the phrase. It was just so comforting to have that human voice on the end of the phone; somebody with real care and concern for your well-being, and that I wasn’t just dispensable.

After I’d done another couple of reports, I was passed back again to Traffic, and another very lovely guy did the exact same thing. He said, ‘Right, before I pass you, let’s just take a rain check. How are you? Are you okay? Do you need to break?’ This kindness made me feel I was near to somebody safe, even though I was in the middle of devastation.

‘This is what you believe in - and look what’s happened…’

I’m not somebody who can talk very easily about religion. It’s a very private thing for me. But at one point I came across this house where an old lady had died. It was complete rubble except for one wall - the partition between the first and second floor had been demolished but you could work out that the upper part would have been the bedroom wall. The only things left hanging on that wall was a picture of the Last Supper and a crucifix. I was really stunned by this. Why should they survive?

I have thought about it a lot since. To me it was a kind of symbol; that faith would keep this community standing. At the same time it was saying ‘This is what you believed in - and look what’s happened?’ God who united this village in worship was now revealed as the God who had chosen to destroy the village. Even so for me, it was more of a proof that he did exist, and I felt absolutely sure that those families who turned to the church for comfort would find some because what was left out of that destroyed house was the crucifix - the symbol of hope, of faith unshaken perhaps?

But, at the same time, I also felt embarrassed that I did believe in God - especially when the betrayed father of the dead six year old, holding the rosary beads in one hand and his dead daughter's Barbie in the other, was shouting "My God my God why have you forsaken me?"

I remember noticing the priest looking ashamed too. What the hell comfort is religion when you have just lost the most precious thing in your life? Especially because those parents believe their children are being looked after in heaven - some of the coffins had little notes on them saying "Goodbye darling, we know the angels will look after you." Naive? Well maybe, but that's their comfort and I felt somehow as if I had to defend their right to hold these beliefs.

‘Other correspondents have to deal with the horrors of war zones.”

After I came back, I was very worried about telling anybody about what had happened and how I felt about it. I felt quite embarrassed to admit to feeling upset by an earthquake when many other correspondents are frequently sent to war zones and have to report on and deal with the horrors that go with them.

I had a real fear that the reaction would be, ‘She’s too over sensitive and wet for this kind of job. We’d better keep her in the office’. But, to my surprise, my manager was fantastic and said. ‘Well, I’m not surprised. Is there anybody you’d like to talk to about it? There are counsellors, etc.’ I didn’t go to see a counsellor, but I did talk to a couple of very close friends which helped enormously.

Over this last six months I have covered umpteen death and tragic stories. Yet, it seems to me that faith is not at all rigid, but something which constantly needs revision and examination. Each tragedy, each sadness, each new experience seems to require a new application of faith - a new molding, a new response. This is why, for me, religion is such a deeply personal thing - it’s something that's felt more than believed. I don't know if my faith has deepened over the past few months, but I do know I’ve questioned it more than ever before.