In the night, Messina, a large Italian town in Sicily, was hit by the earthquake. Almost all buildings were destroyed. Of 160,000 people, 148,000 were killed and buried alive. In the morning, a huge tsunami finished the demolition. The railroad to Messina was also annihilated.
At this moment, a squadron of Russian training ships was in the port of Augusta, not far from Messina. When rear-admiral Vladimir Ivanovich Litvinov learned of the tragedy, he ordered the cruiser Bogatyr to stay in Augusta to provide radio communication between Calabria and Sicily, and the battleships Slava and Tsesarevich (also transcibed as Cessarevic, Czarevic, Tsessarevitch, etc.) and cruiser Admiral Makarov were to go at full speed to Messina for the rescue operations.
In Messina, they could not use anchors because the sea floor was still shaking. Immediately upon arrival, Russian sailors and officers began working at the site. The sailors recalled later the terrible sights they witnessed: people with torn away arms, killed spouses, lying in the bed that stuck under the fallen roof, dead bodies hanging from the windows... The rescuers had to work mostly with bare hands to prevent the tumbling ruins from completely falling apart. In the evening, one more earthquake destroyed the church of Annunziata di Cataloni and a number of Russian sailors were buried under the stones. Most of them were killed.
Soon, two Russian gunboats, Gilyak and Koreyets arrived to Messina to help the other crews.
By the evening, about 550 people were taken aboard Admiral Makarov who set to Napoli. The sailors assisted the doctors and worked all night, but in spite of their efforts 8 people died. In Napoli, Admiral Makarov took the cargo of food and medicine and at midday of 1 January. Late in the evening, Admiral Makarov departed to Napoli again with the second group of survivors.
On 30 December the Italian cruiser Vittorio Emmanuel came to Messina carrying the royal flag: Italian queen Elena (Jelena Petrović-Njegoš of Montenegro) came to support the rescue teams. She spent her childhood in Russia and considered herself half-Russian. She visited battleship Slava, asked to call her Yelena Nikolayevna (she was the daughter of King Nikola I Petrović-Njegoš of Montenegro) and asked what she could do to help. Litvinov asked her to bring more bandages and medicine. Elena ordered to prepare a cargo of medicine in Napoli and Slava went there to bring it to Messina.
During the rescue operations, Russian sailors co-operated closely with British sailors from cruiser Sutlej.
On the 3 December the rescue works were over. Litvinov reported to St.Petersburg about 1,800 people saved from the ruins, but the total number was, probably, about 3,000. In St.Petersburg, a public committee "Peterburg-Messina" was founded to collect money for the citizens of Messina. Tsar Nikolay II donated 50,000 French Francs. Writer Maxim Gorky transferred the royalties for his new book to the committee. The French newspaper Figaro wrote later: "And a village of poor muzhiks lost in the steppes sent 21 ruble to Italy. Their poor village does not know the terrors of the earthquake, they live in a different climate, the speak different language, but it was enough for them to hear of a faraway people suffering from the earthquake and they offered their helping hand."
Update @23:45 2007-12-28: Here are two articles in Italian with photos of the Russian ships, episodes of the rescue works and the plaque set by the citizens of Messina in 1978 to commemorate the sailors of the Russian ships Bogatyr, Cessarevic, Makarov and Slava:Un pò di storia: i marinai russi a Messina dopo il terremoto.
Solitudine e disperazione cedono il posto alla speranza: La flotta Imperiale dello zar getta l'ancora nel porto di Messina