'Apocalyptic' aftershocks of back-to-back earthquakes level buildings in Italy

A pair of "apocalyptic" aftershocks shook central Italy on Wednesday, crumbling buildings, knocking out power and sending panicked residents into the rain-drenched streets just two months after a strong earthquake in the region killed nearly 300 people.

6.1-magnitude earthquake strikes Italy, 2 hours after 5.4 quake

A deadly 6.2-magnitude earthquake that shook Italy in late August caused several hundred deaths and flattened three towns. (Alessandro Di Meo/ANSA via AP)

A pair of strong aftershocks shook central Italy late Wednesday, crumbling churches and buildings, knocking out power and sending panicked residents into the rain-drenched streets just two months after a powerful earthquake killed nearly 300 people.

But hours after the temblors hit, there were no reports of serious injuries or signs of people trapped in rubble, said the head of Italy's civil protection agency, Fabrizio Curcio. A handful of people were treated for slight injuries or anxiety at area hospitals in the most affected regions of Umbria and Le Marche, he said. A 73-year-old man died of a heart attack, possibly brought on by the quakes, local authorities told the ANSA news agency.

"All told, the information so far is that it's not as catastrophic" as it could have been, Curcio said.

The temblors were actually aftershocks to the Aug. 24 quake that struck a broad swath of central Italy, demolishing buildings in three towns and their hamlets, seismologists said. Several towns this time around also suffered serious damage, with homes in the epicentre of Visso spilling out into the street.

The Church of San Sebastiano stands amid damaged houses in Castelsantangelo sul Nera in Italy late Wednesday following an earthquake. A pair of strong aftershocks caused damage and panic just two months after a powerful earthquake killed nearly 300 people. (Sandro Perozzi/The Associated Press)

The first struck at 7:10 p.m. and carried a magnitude of 5.4. But the second one was eight times stronger at 6.1, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Because many residents had already left their homes with plans to spend the night in their cars or elsewhere, they weren't home when the second aftershock hit two hours later, possibly saving lives, officials said.

Marco Rinaldi, mayor of Ussita, tells The Associated Press that the town's church, the parish and other buildings have suffered some heavy damage.

Rinaldi said early Thursday: "The final count of damages will be done with the first lights of dawn"

He adds: "It was something. The valley is small, and the fault passes here."

Rinaldi said two elderly people were rescued from their home, where they were trapped, and appeared to be in good condition. Some 200 people in Ussita were planning to sleep in the streets, given the impossibility of putting up tents so late at night.

Calling it "apocalyptic," he said the town and its hamlets were "finished."

A church crumbled in the ancient Perugian town of Norcia, famed for its Benedictine monastery and its cured meats. A bell-tower damaged on Aug. 24 fell and crushed a building in Camerino, the ANSA news agency said. Elsewhere, buildings were damaged, though many were in zones that were declared off-limits after the Aug. 24 quake that flattened parts of three towns.

"We're without power, waiting for emergency crews," said Mauro Falcucci, the mayor of Castelsantangelo sul Nera, near the epicentre. Speaking to Sky TG24, he said: "We can't see anything. It's tough. Really tough."

A man rests in a secured area after earthquakes in the village of Visso after the Twin earthquakes rocked central Italy on Wednesday. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

He said some buildings had collapsed, but that there were no immediate reports of injuries in his community. He added that darkness and a downpour were impeding a full accounting.

Schools were closed in several towns Thursday as a precaution and a handful of hospitals were evacuated after suffering damage.

Premier Matteo Renzi, who cut short a visit to southern Italy to monitor the quake response, tweeted "all of Italy is embracing those hit once again."

Italy's national vulcanology centre said the first quake had an epicentre in the Macerata area, near Perugia in the quake-prone Apennine Mountain chain. The U.S. Geological Survey put the epicentre near Visso, 170 kilometres northeast of Rome, and said it had a depth of some 10 kilometres.

Two earthquakes struck central Italy Wednesday afternoon, the first, a magnitude 5.4, and later a more powerful 6.1-magnitude quake. (USGS)

The second aftershock struck two hours later at 9:18 p.m. with a similar depth.

Experts say even relatively modest quakes that have shallow depths can cause significant damage because the seismic waves are closer to the surface. But seismologist Gianluca Valensise said a 10-kilometre depth is within the norm for an Apennine temblor.

The Aug. 24 quake that destroyed the hilltop village of Amatrice and other nearby towns had a depth of about 10 kilometres. Amatrice Mayor Sergio Pirozzi said residents felt Wednesday's aftershocks but "We are thanking God that there are no dead and no injured."

Impact felt across Italy

The original Aug. 24, 6.2-magnitude quake was still 41 per cent stronger than even the second aftershock.

Wednesday's temblors were felt from Perugia in Umbria to the capital Rome and as far north as Veneto. It also shook the central Italian city of L'Aquila, which was struck by a deadly quake in 2009. The mayor of L'Aquila, however, said there were no immediate reports of damage there.

People walk past rubble as rescue operations begin after a 5.4-magnitude earthquake struck central Italy. A 6.1-magnitude earthquake struck an hour later. (Matteo Crocchioni/EPA)

A section of a major state highway north of Rome, the Salaria, was closed near Arquata del Tronto as a precaution because of a quake-induced landslide, said a spokeswoman for the civil protection agency, Ornella De Luca.

The mayor of Arquata del Tronto, Aleandro Petrucci, said the aftershocks felt stronger than the August quake, which devastated parts of his town. But he said there were no reports of injuries to date and that the zone hardest hit by the last quake remained uninhabitable.

`'We don't worry because there is no one in the red zone, if something fell, walls fell," he said.

In Rome, some 230 kilometres southwest from the epicentre, centuries-old palazzi shook and officials at the Foreign Ministry evacuated the building.

The quakes were actually aftershocks of the magnitude 6.2 earthquake from two months ago. Because they were so close to the surface, they have the potential to cause more shaking and more damage, "coupled with infrastructure that's vulnerable to shaking," said U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Paul Earle.

"They have a lot of old buildings that weren't constructed at a time with modern seismic codes," he said.

Given the size, depth and location of the quakes, the USGS estimates that about 24 million people likely felt at least weak shaking.

This original quake was about 20 kilometres northwest of the original shock, which puts it on the northern edge of the aftershock sequence and two months is normal for aftershocks, Earle said.

Rescuers gather in the village of Visso, central Italy, on Wednesday. (Matteo Crocchioni/ANSA via AP)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.