A 6.2-magnitude earthquake rocked a swath of central Italy and destroyed four small villages popular with tourists early Wednesday, burying residents under rubble as they slept and killing at least 63 people, including two infants. More than 100 are missing and believed to be trapped under the debris.
The temblor hit at 3:36 a.m. local time near Norcia, 50 miles southeast of Perugia, and was felt more than 100 miles away in Rome. As many as 39 aftershocks jolted the region into the early morning hours, some as strong as 5.1.
“The worst affected towns were believed to be Accumoli, Amatrice, Posta and Arquata del Tronto,” reported Reuters.
Among the hardest hit was Amatrice, a village of 2,000 north of Italy’s Lazio region, with entire palazzos razed to the ground. Aerial images from the fire department showed whole streets flattened.
“The town isn’t here anymore,” said Mayor Sergio Pirozzi.
“There are so many dead I cannot make an estimate,” he told RAI state television. “We have already extracted several dead bodies but we do not know how many there are below. There are dozens of victims, many under the rubble. We are setting up a place for the bodies.”
Amatrice is known for its famous all’amatriciana pasta sauce and its 14th-century religious landmarks. The town was preparing for a festival held every year on the final Sunday in August to celebrate the dish.
“It’s all young people here, it’s holiday season, the town festival was to have been held the day after tomorrow so lots of people came for that,” said Amatrice resident Giancarlo, sitting in the road wearing just his underwear.
“It’s terrible, I’m 65-years-old and I have never experienced anything like this, small tremors, yes, but nothing this big. This is a catastrophe,” he said.
“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.”
“It was one of the most beautiful towns of Italy and now there’s nothing left,” said another survivor. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”
As dawn broke, residents, rescuers and even priests used shovels, bulldozers and even their bare hands to try to reach survivors.
“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.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Italians “show their best side in difficult moments,” telling reporters: “We must continue to work and to dig through the debris in order to save human lives and give hope to all those involved in the area.”
Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella described the tragedy as a “moment of pain” for the country.
“We are not going to leave any family alone from any district,” he said. “We are going to work because in the next few hours we must continue to bring people alive from beneath the rubble, and bring hope to that territory.”
“In difficult times, Italy knows what to do.”
Pope Francis postponed his weekly catechesis and then led pilgrims in prayer in St. Peter’s Square. The pontiff tweeted of his “sorrow” about the disaster.
“I also express my condolences to those who have lost loved ones, and my spiritual support to those who are anxious and afraid. Hearing the mayor of Amatrice say that the town no longer exists, and learning that there are children among the dead, I am deeply saddened.”
The U.S. State Department is asking Americans in Italy to let their families know they’re safe.
Italy sits on two fault lines, making it one of the most seismically active countries in Europe.
The last major earthquake to hit the country struck the central city of L’Aquila in 2009, killing more than 300 people.