A strong earthquake hit central Italy early on Wednesday, leaving more than 240 people dead, according to Italy’s civil protection agency.
The magnitude six earthquake struck at 3.36am (1.36am GMT) and was felt across a broad swathe of central Italy, including in Rome and from the Lazio region into Umbria and Le Marche on the Adriatic coast.
The hardest-hit towns were Amatrice and Accumoli near Rieti, some 80 miles north-east of Rome, where the air was thick with dust and smelled strongly of gas.
The centre of Amatrice was devastated, with entire palazzos razed. Rocks and metal tumbled onto the streets and dazed residents huddled in piazzas as almost 39 aftershocks continued into the morning, some as strong as 5.1.
Rescue crews in Amatrice and Accumoli raced to dig out survivors from the rubble, but the death toll was expected to rise as crews reached homes in harder-to-reach hamlets.
Fr Savino D’Amelio, an Amatrice parish priest, described the earthquake as an “immense tragedy.”
“We are only hoping there will be the least number of victims possible and that we all have the courage to move on,” he said.
“The town isn’t here anymore,” Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi added.
A woman, sitting in front of her destroyed home in Amatrice with a blanket over her shoulders, said she didn’t know what had happened to 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.”
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 back to the 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300 people in and around L’Aquila, which sent emergency teams on Wednesday to help with the rescue.
A 1997 earthquake killed a dozen people in the area 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 earthquake.
The Italian geological service put the magnitude at 6.0; the US Geological Survey reported 6.2 with the epicentre at Norcia, about 105 miles north-east of Rome, and with a relatively shallow depth of six miles.
The mayor of the earthquake-hit town of Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, said at least six people had died there, including a family of four, and two others.
In Amatrice, the ANSA news agency reported two bodies had been pulled from one building.
A priest, Fr Fabio Gammarota told ANSA another three were killed in a separate collapse.
Amatrice Mayor Pirozzi told state-run RAI radio and Sky TG24 that residents were buried under collapsed buildings, that the lights had gone out and that heavy equipment was needed to clear streets clogged with debris.
The office of Premier Matteo Renzi tweeted that heavy equipment was on its way.
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