A magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit northern Italy on Tuesday, killing at least 16 people in the same region still struggling to recover from another fatal tremor on May 20.

Premier Mario Monti pledged in a hastily called news conference that the government will do "all that it must and all that is possible in the briefest period to guarantee the resumption of normal life in this area that is so special, so important and so productive for Italy."

The quake, which struck just after 9 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET), was centred 40 kilometres northwest of the city of Bologna, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was just kilometres from where a 6.0 temblor killed seven people earlier this month. The quake was felt from Piedmont in northwestern Italy to Venice in the northeast, and as far north as Austria.

"The number of victims is expected to rise, as is the number of injured, because what is being reported is … damage across the area, with collapsed buildings, collapsed warehouses and factories, collapsed churches," correspondent Sabina Castelfranco told CBC News.

Tower collapsed

By late Tuesday, the death toll stood at 16, with one person missing: a worker at the machinery factory in the small town of San Felice Sul Panaro. Originally government officials had put the death toll at 17, and there was no immediately explanation for the lowered figure.

Some 350 people were injured, officials said. The injured included a 65-year-old woman who was pulled out alive by rescuers after lying for 12 hours in the rubble of her apartment's kitchen in Cavezzo, another town hard hit by the quake. Firefighters told Sky TG24 TV that a piece of furniture, which had toppled over, saved her from being crushed by the wreckage. She was taken to a hospital for treatment.

As far away as Milan, tall buildings and schools were evacuated as a precaution before people were allowed to re-enter. Train lines connecting Bologna with other northern cities were stopped while authorities checked for any damage.

"Schools were completely evacuated and have now been closed," Castelfranco said. "The situation is being described as very, very serious indeed by officials in the area."

When the quake hit Tuesday, Monti was meeting with emergency officials in Rome to discuss the impact of the earlier quake, which struck in the middle of the night and left at least 7,000 homeless.

Daycare had just reopened

Television footage on Sky News 24 showed evacuees from the May 20 quake peering out of their shaking emergency tents in disbelief. In the first quake, four of the victims were working overnight shifts in factories that collapsed; the other three died of heart conditions or other illnesses brought on by fear.

Residents had just been taking tentative steps toward resuming normal life when the second quake struck. In the town of Sant'Agostino, a daycare centre had just reopened. In the town of Concordia, the mayor had scheduled a town meeting Tuesday evening to discuss the aftermath of the first quake.

"Some [buildings]  were already badly damaged in the quake nine days ago, which killed seven people. And this just finished them off, a whole section of canopies, 500-year-old cathedral collapsed, also another cathedral," Castelfranco said.

The May 20 quake was described by Italian emergency officials as the worst to hit the region since the 1300s. In addition to the deaths, it knocked down a clock tower and other centuries-old buildings and caused millions in losses to a region known for making Parmesan cheese. Its epicenter was about 35 kilometres north of Bologna.