SANT'ANGELO, Italy – Rustic yet refined, the two-story villa at the foothills of the Apennines is a family treasure, embracing five centuries of the Celli family's noble history, memories and mementoes. But after the earthquake left wide cracks in the exterior walls, those in the latest generation wonder if they'll ever set foot inside again.
Giancarla Pomponi was near tears as firefighters walked gingerly through the home Thursday afternoon to retrieve a few essential items: ID papers, an oxygen machine, some gold and checkbooks. Even a set of dentures. From the garden, she called out to them, trying to guide them through rooms deemed too dangerous for her to enter herself.
"Try a bottom drawer," she called out to a firefighter who looked out a curtained window seeking directions. "It's a red gadget. It's needed for therapy," she told another who peeked out a side door.
"It's awful not to be able to go inside the house that has been in my family since the 1500s," she said. "We couldn't take anything."
Aided by a young neighbor, Pomponi's mother Settimia and two aunts — ages 83, 88 and 96 respectively — fled for their lives with only their nightclothes on when the quake hit at 3:36 a.m. Wednesday.
Pomponi and her husband were in Rome, where they live, but raced to Sant'Angelo to tend to the three elderly sisters who spend most of the year in Sant'Angelo, a hamlet of quake-devastated Amatrice. The three sisters go to Rome only in winter months, which can be harsh and snowy at Sant'Angelo's 1,050 meters (3,400 feet) altitude.
With the sisters fine physically, albeit in shock, Pomponi and her husband turned their attention to retrieving the few things they needed from the home. Pomponi filled out a formal request at a makeshift help desk set up by firefighters at the edge of a grassy field down the road.
"We accompany them with the necessary precautions, without letting them walk under hazardous spots," said the retrieval squad leader Rossano Riglioni. "We go in very quickly because there are still aftershocks. The houses are dangerous, and we retrieve just the essential material things based on what they ask us. We take those items and get out immediately."
For Pomponi, that meant just the essentials for her mother and aunts, one of whom has heart problems while another suffers from Parkinson's disease. As for family keepsakes like photos?
"Too risky because all the frames fell to the floor, and the glass shattered," Pomponi said. "We preferred not to put them (the firefighters) at risk. And they told us it was too risky to get those things."
Indeed, just an hour before the retrieval crew arrived, a powerful aftershock rattled the area. Pomponi's husband, who is an architect, noted a few deep cracks running down the front of the villa that hadn't been there in the first hours after the quake.
Ten residents of Sant'Angelo perished in the big quake. Year-round residents of the hamlet number in the dozens, but in summer, descendants of old-timers like Pomponi descend on Sant'Angelo for joyous family gatherings, returning to the place where generations were born. In the garden's small vegetable patch, tomatoes and zucchini grow alongside a lone peach tree.
Pomponi said the family is part of the centuries-old Celli clan, which has noble roots originating in Tuscany. The family now has branches in the United States, and often the American relatives come to Sant'Angelo to see the town and family homestead.
Since Wednesday, a flood of emails has arrived from America.
"They want to know if we are alive and if the house is still here," Pomponi said.