Italy has declared a state of emergency after a massive earthquake struck north of Rome during the night leaving dozens dead.
By 0830 GMT, five hours after the quake struck, at least 27 people were reported to have been killed, with the death toll rising steadily as the morning progressed.
The worst effects were felt around the medieval city of L’Aquila, 70 miles (110km) away from the capital, where between 10,000 and 15,000 buildings have been damaged. Roofs fell in on many houses and boulders blocked many mountain roads.
Some 100,000 people fled their homes when the tremors started, fearing aftershocks. Sirens wailed across the city as firefighters and ordinary people started the rescue attempts.
“We left as soon as we felt the first tremors,” said Antonio D’Ostilio, 22, standing in the street with a huge suitcase piled with clothes he had thrown together. “We woke up all of a sudden and we immediately ran downstairs in our pyjamas.”
Nearby, firefighters pulled a woman covered in dust from the debris of her four-storey home. Rescue crews demanded quiet as they listened for signs of life from other people believed still trapped inside.
Italian TV said six students were still trapped in a dormitory in L’Aquila whose roof had collapsed, killing at least one student. Outside the dormitory tearful students huddled together wrapped in blankets, some still in their slippers.
“We managed to come down with other students but we had to sneak through a hole in the stairs as the whole floor came down,” said student Luigi Alfonsi, 22. “I was in bed. It was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me.”
Hundreds, some bloodied and in shock and others sobbing, waited outside L’Aquila’s main hospital for treatment, Italy’s ANSA news agency reported, adding that health managers planned to set up a field clinic. The city’s university hospital was closed for fear it would collapse.
In the dusty, rubble-strewn streets residents hugged one another, prayed or frantically tried to call relatives.
Police gave a provisional death toll of 27, which included at least five children. So far at least eight people are reported to have died in L’Aquila, five in Castelnuovo, one in Poggio Picenze, one in Tormintarte and two in Fossa including a three-year-old girl, one in Totani and two in Villa Sant’Angelo, said police quoted by ANSA.
Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, has cancelled a planned trip to a two day economic summit in Russia and declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal funds to deal with the disaster.
“I am leaving for L’Aquila. I have cancelled my trip to Moscow because I think the situation is such that the presence of the head of government at the scene could be useful,” Mr Berlusconi told Italian television.
“This is the worst tragedy since the start of the Millennium,” said Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department.
He predicted that there would be “numerous victims, many injured and so many collapsed homes”, adding: “It’s an event that will mobilise the nation for many weeks.”
The Italian National Institute of Geophysics put the strength of the earthquake at 5.8, with the epicentre three miles (5km) below the city of L’Aquila in the Apennine mountains. It hit at at 3:32 in the morning, and was clearly felt in Rome, where buildings swayed and residents woke up.
Agostino Miozzo, a civil protection department official, said that electricity, phone and gas lines had been damaged, as aftershocks continued. Some 15,000 people suffered a power cut and part of the highway linking L’Aquila to Rome was closed.
“This means that the we’ll have several thousand people to assist over the next few weeks and months,”he told Sky Italia. “Our goal is to give shelter to all by tonight.” ANSA said the dome of a church in L’Aquila collapsed and the city’s cathedral also suffered damage.
The quake came about five hours after another tremor of 4.6-magnitude was felt over a wide area further north, around Ravenna in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. That quake was about 28 kilometres (17 miles) below ground and there were no reports of damage.
L’Aquila, ringed by the Apennine mountains, is the regional capital of the Abruzzo region, with 80,000 inhabitants. Mr Bertolaso compared the earthquake to that which struck Umbria 12 years ago, killing ten people and damaging buildings and churches, including the Basilica of St Francis at Assisi.
The last major earthquake in central Italy was in the Molise region in October 2002, when 28 people died, including 27 children who perished when their school collapsed.