L’AQUILA, Italy (AP) – A powerful earthquake in mountainous central Italy knocked down whole blocks of buildings early Monday as residents slept, killing more than 70 people in the country’s deadliest quake in nearly three decades, officials said. Tens of thousands were left homeless and 1,500 were injured.
Ambulances screamed through the medieval city L’Aquila as firefighters with dogs worked feverishly to reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a dormitory where half a dozen university students were believed still inside.
In the historic center of the city, a wall of the 13th century Santa Maria di Collemaggio church collapsed and the bell tower of the Renaissance San Bernadino church also fell. The 16th castle housing the Abruzzo National Museum was damaged.
L’Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, was near the epicenter about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of Rome. It is a quake-prone region that has had at least nine smaller jolts since the beginning of April. The quake struck at 3:32 a.m. The U.S. Geological Survey said the big quake was magnitude 6.3, but Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8 and more than a dozen aftershocks followed.
More than 70 people were killed and the death toll was likely to rise, civil protection chief Guido Bertolaso said as rescue crews clawed through the debris of fallen homes. The quake hit 26 towns and cities around L’Aquila, which lies in a valley surrounded by the Apennine mountains. Castelnuovo, a hamlet of about 300 people 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of L’Aquila, appeared hard hit, and five were confirmed dead there. Another small town, Onno, was almost completely leveled.
L’Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said about 100,000 people were homeless. It was not clear if that estimate included surrounding towns. Some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, officials said.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal funds to deal with the disaster, and canceled a visit to Russia so he could deal with the crisis.
Condolences poured in from around the world, including from President Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI and Abdullah Gul, president of quake-prone Turkey.
Residents and rescue workers hauled away debris from collapsed buildings by hand. Firefighters pulled a woman covered in dust from the debris of her four-story home. Rescue crews demanded quiet as they listened for signs of life from other people believed still trapped inside.
Parts of L’Aquila’s main hospital were evacuated because they were at risk of collapse, and only two operating rooms were in use.
The Israeli Embassy in Rome said officials were trying to make contact with a few Israeli citizens believed to be in the region who had not been in touch with their families. Embassy spokeswoman Rachel Feinmesser did not give an exact number.