AMATRICE, Italy — Rescue workers were engaged in a race against time on Wednesday afternoon to save victims of a major earthquake that hit central Italy early on Wednesday morning.
A 6.2 magnitude quake with a shallow depth of 4.2 km hit a mountainous area near the city of Rieti, some 140 km northeast of Rome, at 3:36 a.m. local time (0136 GMT), according to the National Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (INGV).
The death toll reached 120 victims by mid-afternoon, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told a press conference in Rieti. However, officials warned the final toll might rise further, since dozens were still reported missing late on Wednesday.
Amatrice and Accumoli, two small towns in Rieti province, were among the hardest hit.
At least 60 victims lives were claimed there, civil protection chief Fabrizio Curcio told reporters while visiting Amatrice.
At least another 20 people were killed in the villages of Arquata del Tronto and Pescara del Tronto in the eastern Marche region.
In Amatrice, rescue workers were digging with their bare hands to reach survivors trapped under the rubble. The voices of the survivors could still be heard hours after the major tremor had struck.
Most of the buildings along the two central streets collapsed with the quake, burying entire families who had come to spend their vacation in the area.
The small town is usually crowded with both local residents and holidaymakers in the summer time. Now most of it “was gone,” mayor Sergio Pirozzi told local media.
The local hospital was damaged and evacuated, but no severe injures were registered, the medical staff told Xinhua.
Only when buildings were so disintegrated there was no hope for survivors, did rescuers work with bulldozers and heavy machinery to clear the rubble.
Otherwise, they dug in an eerie silence along the little roads in this medieval town in order not to miss possible signs of life.
“Four older women and three of our nuns are still under the rubble,” said Cesare, a priest from a local religious community.
“We urged some intervention, but rescuers told me they needed to wait for heavy equipment to dig,” he added, looking at the collapsed two-storey left wing of his house.
When the quake struck, some 13 people and 6 nuns had been sleeping in the convent, which operated as a holiday center for the elderly in July and August.
The seven people trapped inside were aged between 75 and 90, according to the priest and relatives of those missing.
In nearby Accumoli, very close to the epicentre, three-quarters of the buildings were destroyed and some 2,500 people evacuated, mayor Stefano Petrucci told local media.
The rescue operation was massive. The Italian army, scientific police and military police, plus dog units were added to civil protection officers and firefighters, who were carrying out search efforts.
The major quake was strongly felt all across the Lazio region, including in Rome, and as far as in Naples in the south and Bologna in the north, Ansa news agency reported.
Several powerful aftershocks followed throughout the day.
The quake is being compared to the one that hit the city of L’ Aquila in 2009 which killed over 300 people.
However, Wednesday’s quake was “about 2 to 3 times smaller, in terms of energy released, to the one in L’Aquila,” INGV seismologist Alessandro Amato told a press conference in Rome. PNA/Xinhua/northboundasia.com