At least 120 people died and dozens more were injured or trapped after a powerful earthquake devastated a string of remote hilltop villages across central Italy yesterday.
The 6.2-magnitude quake struck at 3.36am when most were still asleep, razing homes, buckling roads and burying residents under mounds of masonry in the hardest-hit towns of Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto.
Italy’s civil protection agency said the death toll was provisional and likely to rise.
“The situation is dramatic, there are many dead. Rescue efforts are under way and it is very, very difficult,” Amatrice Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told reporters. “Much of the village has disappeared. The aim now is to save as many lives as possible.”
Council engineer Orlando Sandro said 80% of Amatrice’s old town centre had been destroyed, and many buildings were so badly weakened they would have to be pulled down.
Inside the town, almost every building was cracked and whole streets were filled with rubble.
“What can I say,” said a woman in her 30s sitting outside a badly damaged house. “This used to be my home. Now I have nothing.”
Luca Faccenda, 65, said he had lost a cousin. The quake was “stronger than any earthquake I’ve ever felt”, he said. His mother’s house, where he spent his childhood holidays, was badly damaged.
“Walking around, seeing everything destroyed like this … It’s terrible,” he said. “Never in my life, at my age, did I expect to see something like this. It is very hard. Terribly hard. Impossible to comprehend.”
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the priority over the coming days was to rescue any survivors.
Pope Francis prayed for the victims and survivors with a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in St Peter’s Square in Rome for his general audience. “Hearing the mayor of Amatrice say the town no longer exists, that there are children among the victims, I am deeply saddened,” he said.
Amatrice is best known in Italy as the birthplace of the bacon-and-tomato pasta sauce that goes into spaghetti all’amatriciana and was full of visitors arriving for its annual festival celebrating the dish, due to have been held this weekend.
One visitor from Rome described the early-morning scene in Illica, a few kilometres north of Accummoli, as “like Dante’s Inferno. People crying for help. Rescue workers arrived after one hour, one and a half hours.”
The US Geological Survey measured the quake at 6.2 magnitude and put its epicentre near the Umbrian town of Norcia. Italy’s earthquake institute, INGV, registered it at 6.0 and said the epicentre was closer to Accumoli and Amatrice.
“Most earthquakes come from eight to 10km below the ground,” said a local geologist, Manlio Faraoni. “This one was just 4km deep. That’s why the damage is so severe.”
As many as 60 aftershocks, some measuring as strong as magnitude 5.5, continued through the day.
The region is one of the most seismically active parts of Italy, with six severe earthquakes in the past 700 years, including a series of three magnitude-6 quakes in 1703 that killed an estimated 10,000 people.