Thousands homeless as magnitude 6.3 temblor topples churches, buildings

L'AQUILA, Italy - A powerful earthquake in mountainous central Italy knocked down whole blocks of buildings as residents slept early Monday, killing at least 70 people and trapping many more, officials said. Tens of thousands were homeless and at least 1,500 injured.

The earthquake's epicenter was about 70 miles northeast of Rome near the medieval city of L'Aquila.

"A few houses have remained standing, but just a few," Stefania Pezzopane, provincial president of L'Aquila, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

The earthquake struck at 3:32 a.m. local time in a quake-prone Abruzzo region that has had at least nine smaller jolts since the beginning of April. The U.S. Geological Survey said Monday's quake was magnitude 6.3, but Italy's National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8.

Civil Protection chief Guido Bertolaso said 70 people had been killed, but Italy's La Repubblica newspaper said that rescue workers were reporting 92 deaths.

Officials said the death toll was likely to rise as rescue crews clawed through the debris of fallen homes.

L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said some 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.

As aftershocks rumbled through, slabs of walls, twisted steel supports, furniture and wire fences were strewn about the streets and a gray dust carpeted sidewalks, cars and residents.

A resident standing by an apartment block that was reduced to the height of an adult said: "This building was four stories high."

In another part of the city, residents tried to hush the wailing of grief to try to pinpoint the sound of a crying baby.

Students trapped
As ambulances screamed through the city, firefighters aided by dogs worked feverishly to reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a student dormitory where half a dozen university students were believed still inside.

Outside the half-collapsed dorm, tearful young people huddled together, wrapped in blankets, some still in their slippers after being roused from sleep by the quake.

"We managed to come down with other students but we had to sneak through a hole in the stairs as the whole floor came down," said student Luigi Alfonsi, 22. "I was in bed — it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me."

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.

The town of Castelnuovo also appeared hard hit, with five confirmed dead there.

Another small town, Onno, was almost completely leveled. At least 10 people were killed, said a Reuters photographer who saw a mother and her infant daughter carried away in the same coffin.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal funds to deal with the disaster. He canceled a visit to Russia and planned to go to L'Aquila to deal with the crisis.

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.

Hospital at risk of collapse

Parts of L'Aquila's main hospital were evacuated because they were at risk of collapse, forcing the wounded to be treated in the open air or taken elsewhere.

Bloodied victims waited to be tended to in hospital hallways or outside in the hospital courtyard. Only two operating rooms were working. Civil protection crews were erecting a field hospital to deal with the influx of wounded.

On the city's dusty streets, as aftershocks continued to rumble through, residents hugged one another, prayed quietly or frantically tried to call relatives. Residents covered in dust pushed carts full of clothes and blankets that they had hastily packed before fleeing their homes.

"We left as soon as we felt the first tremors," said Antonio D'Ostilio, 22, as he stood on a street in L'Aquila with a huge suitcase piled with clothes he had thrown together. "We woke up all of a sudden and we immediately ran downstairs in our pajamas."

Housing the homeless

Evacuees converged on an athletics field on the outskirts of L'Aquila where a makeshift tent camp was being set up. Civil protection officials distributed bread and water to people who lay on the grass next to heaps of their belongings.

"It's a catastrophe and an immense shock," said resident Renato Di Stefano, who was moving with his family to the camp as a precaution. "It's struck in the heart of the city, we will never forget the pain."

Agostino Miozzo, an official with the Civil Protection Department, said between 10,000 and 15,000 buildings were damaged. He said stadiums and sporting fields were being readied to house the homeless.

"This means that the we'll have several thousand people to assist over the next few weeks and months," Miozzo told Sky Italia. "Our goal is to give shelter to all by tonight."

L'Aquila lies in a valley surrounded by the Apennine mountains. It is the regional capital of the Abruzzo region, with about 70,000 inhabitants.

Residents of Rome, which is rarely hit by seismic activity, were woken by the quake, which rattled furniture and swayed lights in most of central Italy.

The last major quake to hit central Italy was a 5.4-magnitude temblor that struck the south-central Molise region on Oct. 31, 2002, killing 28 people, including 27 children who died when their school collapsed.

Weeks before the disaster, an Italian scientist had predicted a major quake around L'Aquila, based on concentrations of radon gas around seismically active areas.

Seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani was reported to police for "spreading alarm" and was forced to remove his findings from the Internet.

Civil Protection reassured locals at the end of March that tremors being felt were "absolutely normal" for a seismic area.

The quake was the latest and strongest in a series to hit the L'Aquila area on Sunday and Monday.