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A 6.2 magnitude earthquake hit the center of Italy in the early hours of Wednesday morning, leveling buildings and burying people underneath the rubble.

ROME — A powerful earthquake that toppled homes, churches and shops in numerous medieval towns in central Italy Wednesday killed at least 120 people, according to Italian Premier Matteo Renzi.

Dozens more are missing or feared dead from the magnitude-6.2 earthquake and a series of aftershocks that jolted Umbria, Lazio and Le Marche, three regions some 80 to 100 miles northeast of Rome.


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 breakdown of the death toll, but the Italian news agency ANSA 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.

Much of city center of Amatrice was covered with metal and rock debris that collapsed in the initial quake and aftershocks. Resident of this picturesque medieval town of around 3,000 people gathered in the piazzas, dazed by the quake and fearful of more temblors.

“The whole ceiling fell but did not hit me,” said resident Maria Gianni, according to the AP. “I just managed to put a pillow on my head and I wasn’t hit luckily, just slightly injured my leg.”

The Vatican sent a six-man team from the Vatican City State’s fire squad to Amatrice early Thursday. A statement said the decision was taken as a “sign of the pope’s concrete proximity to the people affected by the quake.”

In some towns, rescue teams alternated bulldozers with bare hands to dig through piles of rubble looking for claw through piles of rubble for possible survivors as authorities warned the death toll is likely to rise.

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After a 6.2-magnitude rocked central Italy, dozens of people are dead and others are trapped underneath the rubble of what used to be their homes.

Mayor Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of Amatrice, told the Associated Press that rescue teams are trying to reach all 69 hamlets around his town.

“Half of the town doesn’t exist anymore,”  Pirozzi told RAI-TV. “People are stuck underneath the rubble. Houses are no longer there.”

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.

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Italy’s civil protection agency says at least 37 people have died in the magnitude 6 quake that struck central Italy. Crews are looking through the rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors and victims. (Aug. 24)
AP

In Accumoli, one witness told ANSA that fire and police teams looking for a young couple and two children in a pile of rubble were alternating earth-moving equipment with individuals using bare hands.

The center of Amatrice was devastated and homes collapsed on residents as they slept. Pirozzi said the quake level several buildings and knocked out power to the community, hampering communications with emergency responders.

The local hospital was also badly hit, forcing the wounded and stretcher-bearers to gather in front of the building. Ambulances then transferred patients to other towns.

The popular tourist destination  — best known as the home of “pasta all’amatriciana” — is remote and was cut off after a bridge connecting the town and the rest of the region was damaged in the quake. The town was scheduled to host its 50th spaghetti festival on Saturday.

Search parties sifted through the rubble in various towns and villages as the sun rose. It became clear for some officials that the extent of the damage was worse than they initially thought.

“Now that daylight has come, we see that the situation is even more dreadful than we feared with buildings collapsed, people trapped under the rubble and no sound of life,” Stefano Pertucci, mayor of Accumoli mayor, told RAI-TV.

“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 AP.

The mayor said at least 2,500 people have been displaced in the Accumoli, including 2,000 summer season tourists. “We will try to assist them all, but you’d better leave the country.” he told them, according to ANSA.

Two tent cities were being erected in Pescara and Arquata del Tronto, to accommodate the displaced, ANSA reports. Civil defense teams were rounding up camp stoves and generators. Other homeless families were being sheltered in gyms and other public buildings.

Fabrizio Curcio, the 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.

Italy, which sits on two fault lines, is one of the most earthquake-prone countries throughout Europe.

The first earthquake struck around 3:30 a.m. local time near Norcia, a small town roughly 105 miles from Rome, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. No victims were reported there, but the quakes damaged buildings, according to RaiNews24.

“Much of our patrimony is damaged, but there are no victims,” Mayor Nicola Alemanno told RaiNews24. “That is the good news.”

In brief remarks, Renzi thanked rescue workers who dug through debris to reach residents crushed by their homes.

Renzi said that in times of trouble, Italy shows its true face. He added: “No family, no city, no hamlet will be left alone.”

The first quake was followed by at least 11 tremors in what the seismological center described as a “high aftershock rate.”

“Aftershock rate is high in #Italy following M6.2 and will likely continue in the coming days,” the center said in a tweet Wednesday.

The U.S. Embassy restricted all but essential official travel to the area and recommended that U.S. citizens defer travel in these areas as well.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered his condolences to Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and offered any U.S. assistance Italy might need, his spokesman said.

In Rome, residents said they felt a long swaying followed by aftershocks.

“I could feel the ground shake and my three dogs started to go a little crazy, running around and barking,” Maurizio Serra, 56, told USA TODAY. “I could hear other dogs in other apartments.”

Serra, who lives on the fourth floor of a Renaissance-era building in the historical center of Rome, said he felt a couple of smaller quakes afterward.

“Thank God there was no serious damage in our building,” he said.

Facebook issued a safety check for those potentially affected by the quake.

The Italian earthquake institute (INGV) reported 60 aftershocks in the four hours following the first quake, the strongest at 5.5.

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 2009, 6.3-magnitude earthquake in L’Aquila occurred roughly 55 miles south of the latest tremor.

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.

Stanglin reported from McLean, Va.; Contributing: Charles Ventura from Los Angeles, Steph Solis and Jessica Durando from McLean.