A powerful earthquake flattened mountain towns in central Italy on Wednesday, killing at least 73 people, burying some alive in their sleep under mounds of rubble, as exhausted volunteers and firefighters raced to free those still trapped.
Dozens of buildings collapsed in communities close to the epicenter of the quake in a remote area straddling the regions of Umbria, Marche and Lazio.
Deaths were reported in the villages of Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto as residents and emergency services scrambled frantically to rescue people trapped beneath the ruins of houses reduced to piles of masonry.
“I was blown away by what I saw. We haven’t stopped digging all day,” said Marcello di Marco, 34, a farmer who travelled from the town of Narni some 100 km away to help out in the hamlet of Pescara del Tronto.
In the nearby village of Accumoli a family of four, including two boys aged 8 months and 9 years, were buried when their house imploded.
As rescue workers carried away the body of the infant, carefully covered by a small blanket, the children’s grandmother blamed God: “He took them all at once,” she wailed.
It was Italy’s most powerful earthquake since 2009, when more than 300 people died in and around the city of Aquila, just to the south of where Wednesday’s quake struck.
“The situation is dramatic, there are many dead. I cannot give a toll for now because rescue efforts are under way and it is very, very difficult,” said Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi.
“The town isn’t here anymore,” he said. “Half the village has disappeared.”
Fabrizio Curcio, the head of Italy’s civil protection service, classed the quake as “severe.”
The shocks were strong enough to wake residents of central Rome, some 150 kilometers away.
Aleandro Petrucci, the mayor of Arquata, said Pescara was one of “two or three hamlets that have just completely disintegrated.”
Amatrice, where the local authorities confirmed five deaths, was packed with visitors at the peak of the summer season when the quake struck, destroying the hilltop village’s main street.
Mayor Pirozzi said difficult access to the village had prevented emergency services getting through.
“There is a landslide on one road, a bridge is about to collapse on the other one,” he said. “We can hear voices under the rubble.”
Amatrice is famous in Italy as a beauty spot and is a popular holiday destination for Romans seeking cool mountain air at the height of the summer.
The first quake struck shortly after 3.30am (0130 GMT), according to the United States Geological Survey, and a 5.4-magnitude aftershock followed an hour later.
USGS’s PAGER system, which predicts the impact of earthquakes, issued a red alert — suggesting significant casualties and damage based on previous quake data.
The devastation harked back to the 2009 6.3-magnitude quake that killed more than 300 people in and around L’Aquila, about 90 kilometers south of the latest tremor. The town sent emergency teams Wednesday to help with the rescue.