A strong earthquake shook central Italy just after 3:30 a.m. Wednesday causing extensive damage to three cities near the epicenter and killing at least 73 people, including children, according to unofficial numbers given by Italian media.
The U.S. Geological Survey put the magnitude at 6.2 with an epicenter about 10 kilometers southeast of the town of Norcia.
The shaking was also felt across a large part of the Umbria region, including the capital, Rome, 150 kilometers away.
The hardest-hit areas included the towns of Amatrice and Accumoli. “Three quarters of the town is not there anymore,” the mayor of Amatrice, Sergio Pirozzi, told state-run broadcaster RAI. “The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there,” Pirozzi said.
The ANSA news agency said that 35 of the dead were in Amatrice alone.
“The whole ceiling fell but did not hit me,” said Amatrice resident Maria Gianni. “I just managed to put a pillow on my head and I wasn’t hit luckily, just slightly injured my leg.”
Another woman, sitting in front of her destroyed home, said she did not know what might had happened to her loved ones. “It was one of the most beautiful towns of Italy and now there’s nothing left,” she said.
The Rev. Savino D’Amelio, a parish priest in Amatrice, called the situation an “immense tragedy.”
Dozens of aftershocks
In the neighboring province of Marche the earthquake was felt at 3.36 am. In Montefiore dell’Aso, about an hour-and-half away by car from the epicenter of the trembler at Norcia, the shock lasted about 30 seconds, according to VOA’s Jamie Dettmer.
He says residents at the Hotel Magnolia perched above a picturesque valley running into the Adriatic, were shocked by the strength and duration of the quake as they evacuated the building fearful of after-shocks. “The hotel creaked and groaned and the wooden beams complained as the prolonged jolt tested the building, which held up well. There was only a slight and small superficial crack in the masonry,” he said.
Outside the hotel on the cool night with dogs barking nearby and a donkey braying, guests trawled the internet for news and phoned family and friends to find out if they were all safe.
About 45 minutes later a second, weaker trembler was felt that lasted about 20 seconds. And the next day around lunchtime another after-shock was felt, lasting again about 20 seconds.
According to Dettmer more than 80 after-shocks have been felt since the initial large trembler in different parts of Italy. “Italians in the central provinces of Lazio, Marche and Umbria are on edge,” he says. “Many people are fearful of a repeat of the devastation cased in the 2009 earthquake that wrecked the city of L’Aquila in which 309 people died. So far it is smaller villages that have been mostly affected.”
Local authorities have confirmed that 38 people have so far died but that 150 people are still unaccounted for. Most of the dead were in the villages of Accumoli, and in Amatrice, which was largely reduced to rubble. Another village to the south-east of Norcia, Pescara del Tronto, was leveled.
For several days before the Wednesday earthquake central Italy had experienced slight tremors.
Pope prays for victims
At the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed his sorrow for the people and cities affected and cancelled part of his general audience to pray for the victims.
Premier Matteo Renzi planned to go to the zone later Wednesday and promised: “No family, no city, no town will be left alone.”
German leaders have offered condolences and assistance to Italy following the devastating earthquake. France is also offering Italy all the help that might be necessary.” after the deadly earthquake in Umbria.
The European Union’s crisis management Commissioner Christos Stylianides said Wednesday that the EU emergency response center is in contact with Italian civil protection authorities to see what additional help might be required.
Italy’s civil protection agency said several hundred people were injured and many people are in need of temporary housing.
“Quakes of this magnitude at this depth in our territory in general create building collapses, which can result in deaths,” said the agency’s head Fabrizio Curcio.
Rescuers worked after daybreak to try to reach those trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings.
“We need chain saws, shears to cut iron bars, and jacks to remove beams: everything, we need everything,” civil protection worker Andrea Gentili told the Associated Press.
“We are only hoping there will be the least number of victims possible and that we all have the courage to move on,” D’Amelio said.
Wednesday’s quake was not far from the city of L’Aquila, hit by a 2009 quake that killed at least 300 people.
Recent Earthquakes in Italy
July 2001 – 5.2 quake shakes the northern Italy’s Alto Adige, killing one woman.
Oct. 2002 – 5.9 quake in Campobasso, kills 30 people, most of them children.
April 2009 – Powerful quake in Abruzzo kills more than 300 people.
May 2012 – 16 people killed and 350 injured in earthquake around Modena.