A powerful earthquake killed at least 120 people and destroyed a cluster of small mountain villages in Central Italy Wednesday,as rescue workers were digging frantically through the rubble of historic buildings for any survivors.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi announced the updated death toll. Among the hardest hit towns was Amatrice, a village of 2,700 in the province of Rieti. Survivors painted a grim picture of devastation following the magnitude-6.2 quake, which struck at 3:36 a.m. and was felt as far away as Rome.
“The town isn’t here anymore,” said Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of Amatrice. “We came out to the piazza, and it looked like Dante’s Inferno,” said Agostino Severo, a Rome resident visiting Illica. “People crying for help, help.
Rescue workers arrived after one hour… one and a half hours.”
Renzi said 34 people died in Le Marche, the rest from the other towns. He also says the identification of quake bodies was a difficult process. Rescuers were setting up tents around the hard-hit areas to care for the thousands of people left homeless.
Complicating matters was that the area is a popular vacation spot in summer, with populations swelling, making the number of people in the area at the time difficult to estimate.
Amatrice, birthplace of the famed spaghetti all’amatriciana bacon-tomato pasta sauce, was set to hold its 50th annual festival celebrating the dish this coming weekend.
The center of the city was devastated, with entire buildings razed and the air thick with dust and smelling strongly of gas.
The quake was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, shaking the Lazio region and Umbria and Le Marche on the Adriatic Coast and sending powerful aftershocks across the spine of Italy.
Premier Matteo Renzi planned to head to the zone later Wednesday and promised: “No family, no city, no hamlet will be left behind.”
In Amatrice, rocks and metal tumbled onto the streets and dazed residents huddled in piazzas as some 39 aftershocks jolted the region into the early morning hours, some as strong as 5.1.
“The whole ceiling fell, but did not hit me,” marveled 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 with a blanket over her shoulders, said she didn’t know what had become of her loved ones.
“It was one of the most beautiful towns of Italy and now there’s nothing left,” she said, too distraught to give her name. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”
A family of four, including two boys ages 8 months and 9 years, were buried when their house in Accumoli northeast of Rome collapsed. As rescue workers carried away the body of the infant, the children’s grandmother looked skyward and wailed, “He took them all at once.”
Italy’s civil protection agency said the preliminary toll was 38 dead, several hundred injured and thousands in need of temporary housing, though it stressed the numbers were fluid.
As daylight dawned, residents, civil protection workers and even priests began digging out with shovels, bulldozers and their bare hands, trying to reach survivors. There was relief as a woman was pulled out alive from one building, followed by a dog.
“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. Italy’s national blood drive association appealed for donations to Rieti’s hospital.
The devastation harked to the 2009 quake that killed more than 300 people in and around L’Aquila, about 55 miles south of the latest quake. The town sent emergency teams Wednesday to help with the rescue.
“I don’t know what to say. We are living this immense tragedy,” said the Rev. Savino D’Amelio, a parish priest in Amatrice. “We are only hoping there will be the least number of victims possible and that we all have the courage to move on.”
In Pescara del Tronto, in the Le Marche region, the main road was covered in debris. The ANSA news agency reported 10 dead there without citing a source.
Residents were digging their neighbors out by hand since emergency crews hadn’t yet arrived in force. Photos taken from the air by regional firefighters showed the town essentially flattened; Italy requested EU satellite images of the whole area to get the scope of the damage.
“Quakes with this magnitude at this depth in our territory in general create building collapses, which can result in deaths,” said the head of Italy’s civil protection service, Fabrizio Curcio. He added that the region is popular with tourists escaping the heat of Rome, with more residents than at other times of the year, and that a single building collapse could raise the toll significantly.
The mayor of Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, said six people had died there, including a family of four, and two others. He wept as he noted that the tiny hamlet of 700 swells to 2,000 in the summer months, and that he feared for the future of the town.
“I hope they don’t forget us,” he told Sky TG24.
In Amatrice, the Rev. Fabio Gammarota, priest of a nearby parish, said he had blessed seven bodies extracted so far. “One was a friend of mine,” he said.
Pirozzi estimated dozens of residents were buried under collapsed buildings and that heavy equipment was needed to clear streets clogged with debris.
A 1997 quake killed a dozen people in central Italy and severely damaged one of the jewels of Umbria, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, filled with Giotto frescoes. The Franciscan friars who are the custodians of the basilica reported no immediate damage from Wednesday’s temblor.
Pope Francis skipped his traditional catechism for his Wednesday general audience and instead invited pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square to recite the rosary with him.