The last call

Published by The Mail on Sunday (28th August, 2016)

Two British teenagers orphaned in Italy’s earthquake spent all day calling the mobile phones of their parents in the desperate hope they might still be alive beneath the rubble of their family holiday home.

William and Maria Henniker-Gotley died when the six-bedroom villa they had lovingly restored collapsed in Wednesday’s devastating earthquake. Marcos Burnett, the 14-year-old son of friends staying with them, was also killed.

The couple’s traumatised children Jack, 12, and Francesca, 15, survived the 3.36am disaster, crawling across a ladder to escape the destroyed house, then spent frantic hours with neighbours until the bodies of their parents were found that evening.

‘I asked Jack how he was and he said, ‘I’m not OK. I’m terrible. If my mum’s not OK, I’m not OK,’ ‘ revealed Diana Grigore, the family’s housekeeper. ‘He kept calling her phone all day,’ added Grigore, 32, whose own home nearby in the Lazio hamlet of Sommati was also wrecked.

Yesterday, the official figure for those killed by the quake rose to 291, with 15 people still reported missing. No survivors have been found since Wednesday evening.

The night before the disaster the two families went to a food festival in Amatrice, the town that saw most deaths. It emerged last night that the dead couple were in a bedroom on the middle floor of the three-storey villa, crushed by the higher floor where their children and friends were sleeping.

Rescuers told of arriving to find three distraught teenagers – including Marcos’s younger sister Adriana – trapped on a shattered wall, with the stairs destroyed.

Simon and Anne-Louise Burnett were begging for help from below the rubble. First on the scene were Nando Bonanni, whose restaurant backs on to the villa, and his son Angelo, a chef who also cleaned the couple’s pool.

‘The earth was still shaking,’ said Angelo. ‘I put up a ladder and the children had to crawl across it to escape. They were all crying. They could hear Marcos’s mother and father calling for help from beneath the masonry.’

Nando said they quickly found the teenager’s battered body, then began digging out his parents with their bare hands before a fire crew arrived an hour later. Mr Burnett had a broken leg, his wife’s face was covered in blood. The couple are now recovering in a hospital 40 miles away.

‘The children kept calling out for William and Maria but there was no response. It was terrible,’ said the restaurateur, who helped care for them before their aunt arrived from London.

Housekeeper Grigore had worked for the Henniker-Gotleys since they bought Villa Olivia – named after Maria’s late mother – about seven years ago.

‘They were like a second family,’ she said, wiping away tears. She said the couple, from South London, spent most school holidays in the spectacular 19th Century house. Mrs Henniker-Gotley, an accountant, made pouches filled with lavender from the garden.

The couple enjoyed entertaining and their teenagers were popular with local children, spending hours larking about in the pool behind the villa. Swimming costumes and masks can still be seen alongside dusty clothes in the ruins. New pictures emerged last night showing the family enjoying their holidays in Italy: the parents posing proudly with their children and at parties they threw for local friends around their pool.

Villagers said Mrs Henniker-Gotley, whose father emigrated from Italy to Britain in the 1950s – threw a party for the village in 2012 to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The 51-year-old, who had been visiting the area since she was a child, worked as a finance manager for the charity Children & The Arts, which was supported by Prince Charles. Her husband, 55, was an IT consultant.

Last Friday, the holidaymakers visited a restaurant run by her relatives. ‘They were such a lovely family,’ said Miriana Taliani, her cousin. ‘Now I only have half a heart left.’

‘It is so sad they came from London to die here,’ said Giulio Panelli, another cousin. ‘The children are now alone and so young. It is bad enough to lose one parent – to lose both is a tragedy.’

A state funeral was held for 35 victims, including an 18-month-old baby whose mother moved to the affected area after surviving another earthquake in the region.

One fireman left a poignant note on the white coffin of another of the 21 children known to have died, apologising for failing to reach the nine-year-old girl in time.

As military bulldozers cleared rubble from roads, officials said yesterday they did not expect to find more survivors.

Across the region thousands of people are sleeping in cars, with 900 aftershocks since the deadly quake. ‘I daren’t even stay in my house for a shower,’ said Roberta Martino, 51, a mother of two in Norcia. ‘But at least we are alive.’

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