At least 247 people have been killed and 369 injured following the 6.2-magnitude earthquake that hit towns and villages in a mountainous part of central Italy, some 140 km (85 miles) east of Rome.
It struck at 3.36am when most people in the hardest-hit towns of Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto were asleep and was followed by several aftershocks, all of which could be felt across Italy, from Bologna in the north to Naples in the south, each more than 200km from the epicentre of Norcia in Umbria.
Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology said it had recorded more than 200 aftershocks by 3:00pm on the same day as the initial jolt including one which was recorded as magnitude 5.5 by the US Geological Survey.
Norcia, is a popular summer holiday destination. It is around 10km from the epicentre, has a picturesque historic centre and is a popular tourist site. Mayor Nicola Alemanno said no deaths have been reported deaths in Norcia.
Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, warned after visiting the remote area that the toll from the quake was likely to rise since an unknown number of people were likely to still be trapped in mountains of rubble. He had previously 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. He vowed to rebuild “and guarantee a reconstruction that will allow residents to live in these communities, to relaunch these beautiful towns that have a wonderful past that will never end.”
Rescue teams from around the country have been sent to the affected region. The search efforts are focused around the isolated hilltop communities of Amatrice, Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto where sniffer dogs, firefighters and paramedics were desperately searching for signs of life amid huge chunks of rock, cement and metal from collapsed homes and buildings.
Most of the dead — 184 — were in Amatrice, a picturesque medieval town of around 3,000 people where people often come to escape the heat of Rome.
“The town just isn’t here any more,” said Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of Amatrice, voted one of Italy’s most beautiful historic towns last year. He feared 200 people, including many of his friends, could have died in the town and up to 40 were missing. “Our heart is broken, but will be resurrected,” he said.
Patients at the badly damaged hospital in Amatrice were moved into the streets. Pirozzi, told local media: “The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there.”
People come to Amatrice for the folklore, the traditions and the food, especially amatriciana, which dates back to the 1700s. Amatrice’s regular population was swollen with visitors before the town’s 50th annual food festival, known as a saga where it celebrates it’s famous spaghetti all’amatriciana, a pasta dish with a tomato-based sauce flavoured with guanciale, or cured pork cheek. Therefore it was harder for authorities to judge how many people were staying in holiday homes and hotels in the area when the quake struck. More than 70 were initially thought to be inside the Hotel Roma in Amatrice when it collapsed, but the number was later lowered to 35 by rescue workers after the owner said most of the guests had managed to escape.
Italian restaurants across the world have been asked to make donations for every plate served of the pasta dish in response to the disaster. More than 600 restaurants across Italy said they were putting the dish on their menus and would donate €2 from each one sold to the Red Cross.
A steady stream of trucks brought tonnes of twisted metal, rock and cement down the hill and on to the main road, passed in the other direction by cranes, bulldozers and rescue teams from the army, Alpine guides, carabinieri, firefighters, Red Cross and volunteers. Many small, remote hamlets had to wait several hours before they were reached.
The army was mobilised to help with special heavy equipment and the treasury released €235m of emergency funds. Rescue workers used helicopters to pluck trapped survivors to safety in the more isolated villages, which had been cut off by landslides and rubble.
The area is mountainous and access is difficult. Hastily erected tent cities and kitchens outside the ruined towns catered to some of the more than 2,000 people unable to return home because of the risk from aftershocks.
“Tonight will be our first nightmare night,” said Alessandro Gabrielli as he prepared to spend the night in one of the many emergency tents set up in fields and car parks, each housing 12 homeless quake victims. “Last night, I woke up with a sound that sounded like a bomb.”
Stefano Petrucci, the mayor of nearby Accumoli, said about 2,500 people were left homeless in the local community, made up of 17 hamlets. Others were accommodated in buildings such as gymnasiums.
Television stations showed images of rubble-strewn streets in a number of towns. The facades of some old stone buildings had collapsed, leaving the inside rooms exposed. Some of the survivors have described apocalyptic scenes “like Dante’s Inferno” after the quake, with buildings razed to the ground and dust and gas filling the air.
One of the youngest victims was an 18-month-old girl whose mother survived the 2009 quake in L’Aquila, a few miles south of the epicentre.
A 10-year-old girl has also been rescued from the rubble after being trapped upside down for 17 hours.
“You can hear something under here. Quiet, quiet,” one rescue worker said, before soon urging her on: “Come on, Giulia, come on.”
Footage shows her dust-covered legs poking out of the debris, with muted cheers breaking out as the pony-tailed youngster was eventually freed. Jubilant rescuers shouted “she’s alive” as she was carried away by a firefighter clutching her tightly to his chest.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing two women run up the street in Pescara del Tronto, screaming “She’s alive!”
Firefighter Danilo Dionisi said: “The 10-year-old girl was just pulled out now from the rubble and she is being taken to the hospital and that is good news.
“As far as the rest is concerned, the images speak for themselves, you can see what the town looks like.”
Her condition is unknown.
The search is continuing for loved ones trapped in the rubble following the massive earthquake and the national blood donation service has appealed for donors to come forward.
Pope Francis thanked rescue workers and volunteers and invited everyone to join him in prayer for the victims. Six of the Vatican’s 37 firefighters have travelled to Amatrice to help civil protection workers look for survivors still under the rubble and assist those already rescued.
Italy’s earthquake institute, INGV, said the focus of the quake was relatively shallow, at about 2.5 miles underground. Italy sits on two fault lines, making it one of Europe’s most seismically active countries.
Earthquakes are an ever-present danger for those who live along the Apennine mountain range in Italy: “The Apennine mountains in central Italy have the highest seismic hazard in western Europe and earthquakes of this magnitude are common,” said Richard Walters, a lecturer in Earth sciences at Durham University.
The US Geological Survey said it was the largest earthquake in Italy since April 2009 when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit L’Aquila, killing over 300 people and injuring more than 1,000, 55 miles south of the latest quake and in May 2012 two tremors nine days apart killed more than 20 people in the northern Emilia Romagna region.
The mayor of l’Aquila has promised to take in hundreds left homeless in Amatrice.
France, Germany and the EU have offered their assistance. The French president, François Hollande, said France would provide “all the help that might be necessary” after a “terrible tragedy”, while the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, expressed “the deep sympathy of the German people”.
Several churches and other medieval-era buildings were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake that struck central Italy.
Some of the greatest destruction was in Amatrice, which was voted one of Italy’s most beautiful towns last year and is celebrated for its Cento Chiese, 100 churches filled with frescoes, mosaics and sculptures. Half the facade of the 15th-century church of Sant’Agostino has collapsed, taking with it the beautiful rose window. The courtyard of one of the town’s Renaissance palaces has been turned into a temporary morgue.
The town clock in the 16th-century bell tower remains frozen at just after 3.36 am, the moment the earthquake struck. “Half the town no longer exists,” its mayor, Sergio Piorizzi, said despairingly. In Pescara del Tronto the clock tower is the tallest structure amid the rubble of collapsed buildings in the historic core of the hilltop village.
Many historic buildings are also feared lost or damaged in Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict. The 12th-century basilica, which is said to have been built on the foundations of his house, had been damaged, Father Benedict Nivakoff said although all the monks were safe.
Other historic buildings feared at risk include a museum housed in a medieval fort, and 14th-century frescoes in the church of St Augustine as well as the Roman walls, survivors of many earthquakes, which still partly encircle the town. Further damage is feared to buildings still under repair after the 2009 earthquake.
One of the most spectacular casualties of the 1997 earthquake in 1997, the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi with its magnificent frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue, was reported safe this time.
Italy’s civil protection agency said the first estimate for damage is about $11 billion.
In a statement, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini urged Italians to go out in force on Sunday to visit museums and Italy’s numerous archaeological sites “in a concrete sign of solidarity” with earthquake victims.
Italy’s culture ministry has decreed that proceeds from public museums across Italy this Sunday will be dedicated to helping restore damaged buildings in the quake zone, the Associated Press reports.
They said that while saving lives and helping the homeless had to be the priority in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, there would be a meeting on Thursday to assess the scale of cultural damage.