At least 15 people were feared dead and hundreds injured yesterday after a powerful earthquake struck northern Italy, just nine days after a previous quake killed seven people in the same region.
One of the victims of the 5.8-magnitude quake, which hit the Emilia Romagna region, was a priest who reportedly rushed back into his church to retrieve a Madonna statue.
Firemen were scouring the rubble and mangled remains of buildings for survivors amid reports that at least 300 people had been injured and thousands left homeless.
The epicentre of the earthquake, which struck just after 9am local time, was the area around the towns of Cavezzo, Medolla and Mirandola, about 30 miles northwest of Bologna.
It was the same area that was hit by a quake of 6.0 magnitude on May 20, killing seven people and leaving around 7,000 homeless.
In Cavezzo, officials said more than three-quarters of buildings in the historic centre were now judged to be uninhabitable.
"Everything's collapsed, it's chaos, buildings across the town are down," a fireman in Cavezzo said.
Shops, banks and cafes were closed and streets cordoned off by police. A large shopping block had been reduced to a heap of smashed bricks and mortar.
Residents set up tents in their gardens and were preparing to spend the night in the open for fear of further aftershocks.
Towns that were already badly battered by the first earthquake suffered fresh damage, with churches, towers and factories collapsing into piles of rubble.
Soldiers and rescue officials were deployed to the area as emergency co-ordinators tried to assess the scale of the damage.
Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister, promised that his government would do "all that it must and all that is possible in the briefest period to guarantee the resumption of normal life in this area that is so special, so important and so productive for Italy".
In the town of Sant'Agostino, a person was killed by falling debris, while three workers were killed in a factory in Mirandola, which had reopened only on Monday after work was suspended as a result of the earlier quake.
"Last night was the first night we'd spent back in our homes after the first quake. Then another one hit," one Sant'Agostino resident said.
Work was suspended in factories owned by Ferrari and Ducati, two of the region's world-famous makers of cars and motorbikes.
Modena's balsamic vinegar industry was also hit, with the consortium saying €15m worth in stock had been "seriously damaged". The May 20 quake destroyed 400,000 wheels of maturing Parmesan cheese.
Italy's friendly football match against Luxembourg, due to be played in Parma, just 40 miles west of the quake, was cancelled. (© Daily Telegraph, London)