Sister Mariana may have remained buried along with three other nuns and four elderly female visitors — trapped under the blocks of stone, likely dead — if it weren't for a young man who pulled her and two other nuns from the collapsed convent where she was sleeping when the powerful earthquake in central Italy hit early Wednesday. 

"It was a miracle that the man heard me from so far away," the Roman Catholic nun says of the rescue in Amatrice, a town of about 2,600. "My two fellow sisters are in hospital somewhere, but the others [women], well, I'm waiting for news that I don't think will come." 

The earthquake that devastated Amatrice and two other towns struck at 3:36 a.m. local time. It ripped through numerous other hilltop towns, pulling down buildings old and new, and trapping dozens in their collapsed debris.

Dozens of people are dead and hundreds wounded as rescuers frantically work to dig out survivors in the three towns.

So powerful were the tremors that they were felt as far away as the southern Italian port city of Naples, about 280 kilometres southeast of Amatrice.

"Three-quarters of the town is not there anymore," Amatrice Mayor Sergio Pirozzi said. "The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble. We have to save the people there."

All morning long, rescue workers, heavy machinery and supplies of food and water poured into Amatrice.

Townspeople pull together

Townspeople gathered in small clusters, reeling from the shock and loss. Many stood holding each other and crying as they watched fellow citizens and national emergency response workers use shovels – and hands – to pull the wreckage away, in hopes of reaching survivors.

'I felt many tremors here before, but nothing like this.'
- Paolo Bizzoni, Amatrice dentist 

Twice from one collapsed building, workers retrieved small bodies – children – wrapping them in wool blankets and gingerly carrying them to waiting ambulances.

The majestic Apennine Mountains, topped with billowing clouds, seemed to bely the anguish overwhelming the town.

"Our whole house collapsed except for our bedroom. Our closet fell over and blocked the door, but we climbed out with a ladder through the window," says 16-year-old Ilaria, who didn't want to give her last name. 

"Our gram couldn't make it out, but she was helped out later," says Ilaria, who, along with her younger brother Giuglio, was staying with her grandmother in Amatrice in these last days of the summer. 

'I didn't know what was happening'

Along with other historic hilltop towns devastated by the earthquake, Amatrice attracts hundreds of Italian vacationers escaping the city heat and humidity. Many of the collapsed buildings were bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants full of visitors.

italy-earthquake

A scene in Amatrice, Italy after an earthquake Wednesday. (Megan Williams/CBC)

"It was so strong, so sudden, I didn't know what was happening or even where I was," says Paolo Bizzoni, a local dentist who sat huddled outside a low modern government building that remained intact.

"I felt many tremors here before, but nothing like this."

Beside Bizzoni was local handyman Gabriele Dozza, who watched rescuers picking through a small mountain of rubble across the street.

"You are sleeping, then you wake up and go outside," says Dozza. "Then as you see them carry cadavers away, you start realizing your friends and neighbours are dead. Children … people you know, you knew."

Italy earthquake

(CBC)

With files from The Associated Press