Italy earthquake kills at least 120, reduces towns to rubble
Rescue crews using bulldozers and their bare hands raced to dig out survivors following a strong earthquake that has reduced three central Italian towns to rubble.
The death toll stood at 120, but the number of dead and missing was uncertain given the huge number of tourists in the area.
Residents woke to find what they described as apocalyptic scenes "like Dante's Inferno," with blocks of buildings turned into piles of sand and rock.
"The town isn't here anymore," said Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of the hardest-hit town, Amatrice. "I believe the toll will rise."
The magnitude 6 quake struck at 3.36am local time and was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, including Rome, where residents woke to a long swaying followed by aftershocks.
The quake shook the Lazio region and Umbria and Le Marche on the Adriatic coast, a highly seismic area that has witnessed major quakes in the past.
Dozens of people were pulled out alive by rescue teams and volunteers that poured in from around Italy.
"She's alive," two women cheered as they ran up a street in Pescara del Tronto, one of the three hardest hit hamlets, after an eight-year-old girl was pulled from the rubble after nightfall.
And there were wails when bodies emerged.
"Unfortunately, 90% we pull out are dead, but some make it, that's why we are here," said Christian Bianchetti, a volunteer from Rieti who was working in devastated Amatrice where flood lights were set up so the rescue could continue through the night.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited the zone, greeted rescue teams and survivors, and said the toll stood at 120 dead and was likely to rise.
At least 368 others were injured. He promised the quake-prone area that "No family, no city, no hamlet will be left behind".
Worst affected were the tiny towns of Amatrice and Accumoli near Rieti, some 60 miles north-east of Rome, and Pescara del Tronto, further east. Italy's civil protection agency set up tent cities around each hamlet to accommodate the thousands of homeless.
Italy's health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, visiting the devastated area, said many of the victims were children. The quake zone is a popular spot for Romans with second homes, and the population swells in August when most Italians take their summer holiday before school resumes.
The medieval centre of Amatrice was devastated, with the hardest-hit half of the city cut off by rescue crews digging by hand to get to trapped residents.
Some 70 guests filled the Hotel Roma, and a rescue worker said at least five bodies were pulled from the hotel's rubble. The fate of the dozens of other guests was not immediately known.
Amatrice is made up of 69 hamlets that teams from around Italy were working to reach with sniffer dogs, earth movers and other heavy equipment. In the city centre, rocks and metal tumbled onto the streets and dazed residents huddled in piazzas as more than 200 aftershocks jolted the region throughout the day, some as strong as magnitude 5.1.
"The whole ceiling fell but did not hit me," said 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 did not 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."
Residents, civil protection workers and even priests dug with shovels, bulldozers and their bare hands to reach survivors. A steady column of dumper trucks brought tons of twisted metal, rock and cement down the hill and onto the highway towards Rome, along with a handful of ambulances bringing the injured to Rome hospitals.
"We need chain saws, shears to cut iron bars and jacks to remove beams. Everything, we need everything," civil protection worker Andrea Gentili said in the early hours of the recovery. Italy's national blood drive association appealed for donations to Rieti's hospital.
The magnitude 6 quake's epicentre was located near Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto and had a shallow depth.
"The Apennine mountains in central Italy have the highest seismic hazard in Western Europe and earthquakes of this magnitude are common," noted Dr Richard Walters, a lecturer in Earth sciences at Durham University.
The devastation harked back 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, which still has not fully recovered, sent emergency teams to help with the rescue and set up tent camps for residents unwilling to stay indoors because of aftershocks.
"I don't know what to say. We are living this immense tragedy," said a tearful 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."
President Barack Obama, speaking by telephone to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, said the US sent its thoughts and prayers to the quake victims and saluted the "quick action" by first responders.
Pope Francis skipped his traditional catechism for his Wednesday general audience and instead invited the thousands of pilgrims in St Peter's Square to recite the rosary with him. He also sent a six-man squad from the Vatican's fire department to help with the rescue.
The civil protection agency later raised the death toll to 159.