SALETTA, Italy — A strong, shallow earthquake devastated towns in central Italy early Wednesday, killing at least 120 people and leaving rescuers desperately digging through the rubble to free survivors.
The 6.2-magnitude earthquake badly damaged villages in a mountainous rural area of central Italy, a popular vacation spot usually bustling with tourists during the summer break.
CNN has reported 120 dead, but the toll could continue to rise as rescue teams reach the remote sites where the damage is worst.
Authorities say they cannot put a figure on the number trapped under the rubble.
The earthquake hit 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southeast of Norcia at 3:36 a.m. (9:36 p.m. Tuesday ET), and was about 10 kilometers deep, the United States Geological Survey said. Its tremors even rattled Rome, about 100 miles away.
Amatrice mayor: ‘The town is no more’
Aerial footage released by Italian state police over the worst affected areas showed widespread devastation, with only some structures left standing.
Amatrice, a town of about 2,000 people north of Italy’s Lazio region, is in ruins. Surrounded by damaged buildings, the town’s clock tower is stopped at the exact time the quake struck.
“The town is no more,” Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told the affiliate, appealing to rescuers: “Help us.”
Tommaso della Longa, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said Amatrice had been “almost completely destroyed.”
Rescue workers have been targeting their efforts in the town by calling the cellphones of missing residents, and trying to reach those who answer. If there is no answer, rescuers move on to the next person.
Known for its traditional all’amatriciana pasta sauce, the town had been gearing up to hold a festival celebrating the recipe this weekend.
The mayor of nearby Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, described desperate scenes as rescuers raced against time to try to save those beneath the rubble.
“We’re digging, digging… hoping to find someone alive,” he told the affiliate.
Rescue attempts successful
Rescue teams have been successful in getting some of those trapped under the rubble out alive.
Italy’s State Forestry Corps tweeted footage of a rescue operation underway in the rural town of Capodacqua, where a woman’s arm can be seen beneath the debris.
“Are you able to breathe a bit?” asks the rescuer.
“Only a bit,” says the woman, who is reassured that help is on the way.
Red Cross spokesman della Longa said that rescue workers faced a challenge to reach the affected areas — small villages amid remote, mountainous terrain that were only accessible via local roads.
“During the holidays there are a lot of people there. So we don’t have a precise number (of how many are affected).”
‘The earth is still moving’
In the village of Saletta, a tiny settlement of about 20 residents 2 kilometers from Amatrice, CNN saw residents digging with their bare hands to try to rescue their neighbors from the rubble of their collapsed two-story home.
Local residents — among the first responders at the scene — called the names of their missing neighbors as they tried to claw into what remained of their bedroom. Rescue dogs inspected the rubble, to no avail.
With heavy lifting equipment yet to reach the isolated village, locals improvised with tractors, farm equipment and tools from their homes in an attempt to shift the wreckage from the old stone villas in the area.
People stood stunned on the roadside, coated with a film of dust from the quake, still dressed in the pajamas they were wearing when they fled their houses.
Many were crying and holding each other as the aftershocks continued to jolt the ground.
Pope calls for prayers
Addressing the nation Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi thanked emergency services for their swift reaction and said the coming days would be crucial as people continued to be freed from the rubble. He said he planned to visit the affected area Wednesday afternoon.
“In difficult times, Italy knows what to do,” he said.
Pope Francis called for prayers for those affected by the disaster while Italian President Sergio Mattarella said “the entire country should rally with solidarity around the affected populations.”
“At the moment we need to employ all our forces to save human lives, treat the injured and ensure the best conditions for the people displaced,” he said.
The leaders of France, Germany and Russia all expressed their sympathy over the disaster, while the Italian Voluntary Blood Association made an appeal for people to donate blood to help treat those affected.
Italy is no stranger to deadly quakes. In May 2012, a pair of earthquakes killed dozens of people in northern Italy, while in April 2009, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit in the Aquila region of central Italy, killing 295. The earthquake Wednesday struck an area close to the 2009 earthquake.
Noise ‘like a bulldozer’
Emma Tucker, deputy editor of British newspaper The Times, was in Italy’s Marche region, about 85 kilometers from the epicenter.
“The house was trembling, shaking… an absolutely appalling noise,” she told CNN.
“It felt like someone had put a bulldozer over the house and was trying to knock it down.”
The house had been badly damaged, with what appeared to be structural cracks through the building.
“It was a pretty solid, scary earthquake.”
Eleonora Romendini, who was also in the Marche region, said she was uncertain whether to remain in her home after the quake. But after the third powerful aftershock she decided to run outside to the street, alongside stunned neighbors.
“It was very shocking,” she said. “We were very scared.”
Charlotte Smith, coach of Elon University women’s basketball team in North Carolina, was in Rome with her players when the quake hit.
“It was pretty terrifying,” she said.
“It lasted for at least 30 seconds. The entire hotel was shaking.”
Jessica Turner of the USGS said aftershocks could be expected, perhaps for several days. About an hour after the earthquake, a 5.5-magnitude aftershock struck near Norcia.
Aftershocks threaten to further damage buildings in the affected area, which were a mix of vulnerable and earthquake-resistant housing stock. Landslides were also likely because the earthquake struck in a mountainous area, she said.
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