A retrospective survey was undertaken on the health effects of the 1980 earthquake in southern Italy. The study population included 3619 people living in 7 villages situated near the epicentre of the disaster. The overall casualty rate (dead and injured) was 19.7%. Nearly all the deaths (192/202) occurred among trapped people who died before they could be rescued. Eighty per cent of all the trapped people were extricated within 2 days, mostly without the use of sophisticated means. The probability of survival decreased sharply, the longer the time before extrication. The crude mortality during the 18 months following the earthquake was 19.0 per thousand among the injured people who received treatment, and 14.1 per thousand among non-injured people. After age standardization, there was no significant difference between these two figures and the expected mortality figures for the Italian population in normal times (14.4 per thousand). These results stress the importance of providing rescue activities in the first 48 hours after the impact. Strengthening the self-reliance of the community in disaster preparedness is suggested as the best way to improve the effectiveness of relief operations. In disaster-prone areas, training and education in methods of rescue should be an integral part of any primary health care programme.