'Like Dante's Inferno': 159 killed, 3 towns demolished in central Italy earthquake

Rescue crews using bulldozers and their bare hands raced to dig out survivors from a strong earthquake that reduced three central Italian towns to rubble and killed at least 159 people on Wednesday.

Shallow quake, followed by dozens of aftershocks, flattens buildings in several towns

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      Rescue crews using bulldozers and their bare hands raced to dig out survivors from a strong earthquake that reduced three central Italian towns to rubble Wednesday. The death toll stood at 159, but the number of dead and missing was uncertain given the huge number of vacationers in the area for summer's final days.

      Residents wakened before dawn by the temblor emerged from their crumbled homes to find what they described as apocalyptic scenes "like Dante's Inferno," with entire blocks of buildings turned into piles of sand and rock, thick dust choking the air and a putrid smell of gas.

      "Everything is destroyed, there is no town anymore," said Sabrina Fantauzzi, who spoke to CBC News from Illica, one of the towns hit by the quake.

      She was sleeping at home when the magnitude 6 quake struck at 3:36 a.m. local time. She managed to escape her house with her children.

      "I've been very lucky," she said through tears.

      A man is rescued alive from the ruins in the town of Amatrice. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

      The quake's epicentre was located near Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto and had a shallow depth of just four kilometres, Italy's geological institute said.

      It was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, including Rome, where residents woke to a long swaying followed by aftershocks. The temblor shook the Lazio region and Umbria and Le Marche on the Adriatic coast, a highly seismic area that has witnessed major quakes in the past.

      "The town isn't here anymore," said Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of the hardest-hit town, Amatrice. "I believe the toll will rise."

      Survivors, bodies pulled from rubble

      Dozens of people were pulled out alive by rescue teams and volunteers that poured in from around Italy.

      In the evening, about 17 hours after the quake struck, firefighters pulled a 10-year-old girl alive from the rubble in Pescara del Tronto.

      "You can hear something under here. Quiet, quiet," one rescue worker said, before soon urging her on: "Come on, Giulia, come on, Giulia."

      Cheers broke out when she was pulled out.

      A nun checks her mobile phone as she lies near a ladder following the earthquake in Amatrice. (Massimo Percossi/ANSA/Associated Press)

      There were wails when bodies emerged.

      "Unfortunately, 90 per cent we pull out are dead, but some make it, that's why we are here," said Christian Bianchetti, a volunteer from Rieti who was working in devastated Amatrice where flood lights were set up so the rescue could continue through the night.

      Premier Matteo Renzi visited the zone Wednesday, greeted rescue teams and survivors. He promised the quake-prone area that "No family, no city, no hamlet will be left behind."

      The country's civil protection agency says at least 159 people were killed and hundreds injured.

      Many children among the victims 

      Worst affected were the tiny towns of Amatrice and Accumoli near Rieti, some 100 kilometres northeast of Rome, and Pescara del Tronto, some 25 kilometres further east. Italy's civil protection agency set up tent cities around each hamlet to accommodate the thousands of homeless.

      The hardest-hit towns include Amatrice, seen here, Accumoli and Norcia, where the epicentre was. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

      Italy's health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, visiting the devastated area, said many of the victims were children: The quake zone is a popular spot for Romans with second homes, and the population swells in August when most Italians take their summer holiday before school resumes.

      Among the victims was an 18-month-old girl whose mother survived the deadly earthquake of 2009 in nearby L'Aquila and moved away from there after that terrible experience.

      The news agency ANSA reported that the toddler, Marisol Piermarini, was sleeping in her bed in the family's vacation home in Arquata del Tronto when the quake struck early Wednesday.

      This aerial photo shows the historical part of the town of Amatrice after the quake. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

      The medieval centre of Amatrice was devastated, with the hardest-hit half of the city cut off by rescue crews digging by hand to get to trapped residents.

      The birthplace of the famed spaghetti all'amatriciana bacon and tomato sauce, the city was full for this weekend's planned festival honouring its native dish. Officials initially said about 70 guests were staying at the hotel, but later lowered the number to about 35, many of whom got out in time.

      Amatrice is made up of 69 hamlets that teams from around Italy were working to reach with sniffer dogs, earth movers and other heavy equipment to reach residents. In the city centre, rocks and metal tumbled onto the streets and dazed residents huddled in piazzas as more than 200 aftershocks jolted the region throughout the day, some as strong as magnitude 5.1.

      One woman, sitting in front of her destroyed home with a blanket over her shoulders, said she didn't know what had become of her loved ones.

      "It was one of the most beautiful towns of Italy and now there's nothing left," she said, too distraught to give her name. "I don't know what we'll do."

      The side of a building in Amatrice collapsed following the earthquake. There were as many as 60 aftershocks, some measuring as strong as magnitude 5. (Massimo Percossi/ANSA/Associated Press)

      As the August sun turned into a nighttime chill, residents, civil protection workers and even priests dug with shovels, bulldozers and their bare hands to reach survivors. A steady column of dump trucks brought tons of twisted metal, rock and cement down the hill and onto the highway toward Rome, along with a handful of ambulances bringing the injured to Rome hospitals.

      "We need chain saws, shears to cut iron bars and jacks to remove beams. Everything, we need everything," civil protection worker Andrea Gentili told The Associated Press in the early hours of the recovery. Italy's national blood drive association appealed for donations to Rieti's hospital.

      'People crying for help'

      Despite a massive rescue and relief effort — with army, Alpine crews, carabineri, firefighters, Red Cross crews and volunteers, it wasn't enough: A few kilometres north of Amatrice, in Illica, residents complained that rescue workers were slow to arrive and that loved ones were trapped.

      "We are waiting for the military," said resident Alessandra Cappellanti. "There is a base in Ascoli, one in Rieti, and in L'Aquila. And we have not seen a single soldier. We pay! It's disgusting!"

      Much of the town of Amatrice was destroyed. (Massimo Percossi/ANSA via AP)

      Agostino Severo, a Rome resident visiting Illica, said workers eventually arrived after an hour or so. "We came out to the piazza, and it looked like Dante's Inferno," he said. "People crying for help, help."

      The quake's epicentre was at Norcia, about 170 kilometres northeast of Rome. (CBC)

      The devastation harked back to the 2009 quake that killed more than 300 people in and around L'Aquila, about 90 kilometres south of the latest quake. The town, which still hasn't fully recovered, sent emergency teams Wednesday to help with the rescue and set up tent camps for residents unwilling to stay indoors because of aftershocks.

      Another hard-hit town was Pescara del Tronto, in the Le Marche region, where the main road was covered in debris.

      Residents were digging their neighbours out by hand before emergency crews arrived. Aerial photos taken by regional firefighters showed the town essentially flattened and under a thick gray coat of dust; Italy requested EU satellite images of the whole area to get the scope of the damage.

      UrtheCast's Deimos-2 satellite shows the extensive damage in the town of Pescara del Tronto in central Italy following a magnitude 6 earthquake. (UrtheCast)

      The mayor of Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, said a family of four had died there, one of the few young families who had decided to stay in the area. He wept as he noted that the tiny hamlet of 700 swells to 2,000 in the summer months, and that he feared for the future of the town.

      "I hope they don't forget us," he told Sky TG24.

      Trudeau, Obama offer sympathies 

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered his condolences, as did UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  

      U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking by telephone to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, said the U.S. sent its thoughts and prayers to the quake victims and saluted the "quick action" by first responders, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

      Pope Francis skipped his traditional catechism for his Wednesday general audience and instead invited the thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter's Square to recite the rosary with him. He also sent a six-man squad from the Vatican's fire department to help with the rescue.

      With files from CBC News and Reuters