A powerful earthquake tore through central Italy yesterday, killing at least 50 people as Renaissance buildings in a historic town were reduced to rubble.
More than 1,700 rescuers scrambled to find victims trapped under collapsed homes in L’Aquila, which bore the brunt of the quake, and officials said the death toll would rise.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency and canceled a trip to Russia so he could go to the city, the capital of the Abruzzo region, about 100km northeast of Rome.
The quake struck just after 3:30am and lasted about 30 seconds, bringing down many Renaissance era and Baroque buildings, including the dome of the L’Aquila Cathedral.
Roofs caved in on sleeping inhabitants and boulders fell off mountain slopes blocking many roads. At least five children were among the dead in L’Aquila, ANSA news agency quoted police as saying.
The quake measured 6.2 on the Richter Scale, the Italian geophysical institute said. The epicenter was 5km below L’Aquila, which explained the heavy damage that was inflicted up to 30km away in all directions.
Sirens blared across the city as rescue workers with dogs raced to find survivors. Many of the 60,000 residents fled into the streets as more than a dozen aftershocks rattled the buildings.
Some even left L’Aquila by foot with belongings in suitcases.
Rescue workers pulled several people alive out of one four-story building and said they could hear the cries of one woman still trapped. They planned to try to lift the roof with a giant crane.
Doctors treated people in the open air outside L’Aquila’s main hospital as only one operating room was functioning.
L’Aquila suffered the biggest toll. Other dead were reported in the surrounding towns and villages of Castelnuovo, Poggio Picenze, Tormintarte, Fossa, Totani and Villa Sant’Angelo, police said.
Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy’s public safety department, warned the toll would rise.
“It’s an event that will mobilize the nation for many weeks,” he said, adding that at least 10,000 homes or buildings had been damaged in the quake.
Italy is criss-crossed by two fault lines, making it one of Europe’s most quake-vulnerable regions, with some 20 million people at risk. An October 2002 quake killed 30 people including 27 pupils and their teacher who were crushed under their schoolhouse in the tiny medieval village of San Giuliano di Puglia.
The Travel Agent Association of ROC said there were three groups of tourists from Taiwan traveling in Italy, all of which have reported no injuries.
All three groups were traveling near Rome at the time of the earthquake and were about 90km from L’Aquila, the association said.
The three tour groups are: 24 people with Lion Travel, 19 people with Cola Tour and 15 people with Phoenix Tours.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CNA