Rome: A powerful 6.2 magnitude earthquake ripped through the mountains in central Italy on Wednesday, claiming at least 73 lives as it flattened several villages and towns. Many people are reported missing and the toll is expected to rise, officials said.
A series of aftershocks struck towns in the region, toppling scores of buildings, according to reports.
Many persons are still believed trapped beneath building debris, while rescuers were struggling to reach remote villages and towns levelled in the quake.
Italy Prime Minister Matteo Renzi paid tribute to the volunteers and civil defence officials who rushed to the scene in the middle of the night and used their bare hands to dig for survivors.
The earthquake struck at a shallow depth of 10 km.
The epicentre of the quake was in Norcia in Umbria, about 170 km north-east of Rome, while the hardest hit were the towns of Amatrice, Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto.
Much of the town of Amatrice was reduced to rubble.
“Half of the town doesn’t exist anymore,” Sergio Pirozzi, the Mayor of Amatrice, told RAI-TV. “People are stuck underneath the rubble. Houses are no longer there.”
Two boys aged four and seven were pulled out alive from the debris of the house they had been staying in with their grandmother in the town.
According to La Repubblica, a witness named Marco, a sanitation worker from Amatrice, saw how everything “fell apart” in an instant.
“It was a miracle for me to survive… I just woke up when suddenly everything collapsed. Ten seconds were enough to destroy everything,” he said.
A witness in Configno, near Amatrice, recalled: “It was a nightmare. We woke up at 3.35 a.m. (local time), the furniture falling down, walls moving more than a metre. We rushed out, many are still in their underpants here, in the street. We did some bonfires in the square and went to help old people to get out from their houses,” ANSA reported.
Amatrice is known for its traditional all’amatriciana pasta sauce, and was gearing up to hold a festival celebrating the recipe this weekend, CNN reported.
In Accumoli, a local photographer spoke of 15 rescuers digging with their bare hands trying to reach a family.
“They can hear the screams of the mum and one of the children,” the photographer said.
Rescuers in Accumoli were trying to dig out a 58-year-old man who was trapped in his home and several more were missing.
The town is popular with holidaymakers and most of the 2,500 people left displaced by the earthquake were said to be visitors.
“The roads in and out of town are cut off. Half the town is gone. There are people under the rubble. There’s been a landslide and a bridge might collapse,” said Mayor Sergio Pirozzi.
“There are tens of victims, so many under the rubble. We are preparing a place for the bodies,” he said.
According to the Mirror, devastated residents were seen in tears amid the wreckage as they took in what was left of their homes.
Lina Mercantini of Ceselli, Umbria, added: “It was so strong. It seemed the bed was walking across the room by itself with us on it.”
Officials in Pescara del Tronto and Arquata del Tronto were unsure of the full extent of casualties, but said at least 11 persons were reported dead including children. An elderly couple and a boy were among the victims.
The Italian branch of the Red Cross sent at least 20 ambulances and sniffer dogs to affected areas alongside the Italian Defence Ministry.