ROME — A powerful earthquake toppled homes, churches and shops in a wide swath of medieval towns in central Italy Wednesday, killing at least 247 people and injuring hundreds of others, according to Italy's civil protection agency.
Dozens more were missing or feared dead from the magnitude-6.2 earthquake and a series of aftershocks that jolted Umbria, Lazio and Le Marche, three regions 80 to 100 miles northeast of Rome.
Rescue teams using bulldozers, and aided by townspeople with their bare hands, were still poring through the piles of rock, metal and wood late Wednesday looking for possible survivors. Police near the town of Ascoli said they could hear cries for help from under the rubble but lacked the heavy equipment to move the rocks, according the RAI radio.
“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.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi spoke Wednesday evening in the provincial capital of Rieti after flying over the Le Marche region and visiting first responders and survivors the picturesque town of Amatrice, one of the hardest hit.
There was no immediate or exact breakdown of the death toll, but the Italian news agency ANSA earlier reported at least 35 dead in Amatrice, 11 in Accumoli, near Rieti, and 17 in the province of Ascoli Piceno, which includes Pescara del Tronto. Renzi reported 35 dead in Le Marche.
Fabrizio Curcio, director of Italy’s civil protection agency, activated national emergency procedures. He said the quake was on par with one in L'Aquilla in 2009 that left more than 300 people dead.
The Vatican sent a six-man team from the Vatican City fire squad to Amatrice. A statement said the decision was taken as a “sign of the pope’s concrete proximity to the people affected by the quake."
Mayor Sergio Pirozzi of Amatrice told the AP that rescue teams were trying to reach all 69 hamlets around his town. “Half of the town doesn’t exist anymore,” he told RAI-TV. “People are stuck underneath the rubble. Houses are no longer there.”
Amatrice is perhaps best known as the home of spaghetti all’amatriciana, a hearty dish of pasta made with bacon-like bits of cured pork jowl, pecorino cheese and tomato.The town was set to host its 50th spaghetti festival Saturday.
The first quake struck around 3:30 a.m., collapsing walls and ceilings of homes and trapping people as they slept. It was followed by at least 11 temblors in what the seismological center described as a “high aftershock rate.”
Pirozzi said the quake also knocked out power to the community, hampering communications with emergency responders. The remote town was virtually cut off after a bridge connecting it to the rest of the region was damaged.
A geologist in Poland says that earthquake was caused by the slow but constant under-surface movement of the African Plate toward Europe. Jerzy Zaba of the Silesian University in Katowice, in southern Poland, said Wednesday that a wedge-shaped front of the African Plate is pressing into the Eurasian Plate in the Adriatic Sea region and pushes into the neighboring regions, like Italy’s Apennine Mountains.
The tension that accumulates leads to a sudden release in the form of under-surface rock movement that causes earth tremors.
Zaba told Polish PAP agency that the African Plate is moving northwards at the speed of up to 2 inches a year.
The most deadly Italian earthquake in the 20th century struck in 1908, when a quake followed by a tsunami killed about 80,000 people in Reggio Calabria and Sicily.