L’AQUILA, Italy — A powerful earthquake in mountainous central Italy knocked down whole blocks of buildings early Monday as residents slept, killing more than 150 people in the country’s deadliest quake in nearly three decades. Tens of thousands were homeless and 1,500 were injured.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi, speaking by telephone with one of the TV networks of his media empire, said more than 150 people were dead and more than 1,500 people injured in the quake, which struck near the medieval town of L’Aquila, nestled in the Apennine mountains, before dawn.
The quake felled whole blocks of buildings in L’Aquila and the surrounding area early Monday as residents slept.
Ambulances screamed through L’Aquila as firefighters with dogs and a crane worked feverishly to reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a university dormitory where a half dozen students were believed still inside.
As midnight approached, rescuers pulled a scared-looking dog with a bleeding paw out of the dormitory rubble. Relatives and friends of the missing stood wrapped in blankets or huddled under umbrellas in the rain as rescuers pulled out pieces of what seemed like an armoire, a smashed chair, photographs, wallets and diaries but none of the young people for whom they were searching.
The relatives, sobbing or grim-faced, refused to talk to reporters.
But elsewhere in L’Aquila, firefighters reported pulling a 21-year-old woman and a 22-year-man, both of them Italian, from what was an apartment building where many students rented flats. The building’s five stories had pancaked into one slab or concrete.
Outside the half-collapsed building, part of the University of L’Aquila, tearful young people huddled together, some in their slippers, after being roused from sleep by the quake. Dozens managed to escape as the dorm walls fell around them but hours after the quake, a body of a male student was pulled from the rubble.
“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.”
“There was water gushing out of broken water pipes, and the corridor which led to the stairs was partially blocked when a piece of the wall came down,” Alfonsi, his eyes filling with tears and his hands trembling, told The Associated Press.
Some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, officials said. L’Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said about 100,000 people were homeless. It was not clear if the mayor’s estimate included surrounding towns.
The quake also took a severe toll on the city’s prized architectural heritage. L’Aquila was built as a mountain stronghold during the Middle Ages and has many Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings.
Damage to monuments was reported as far away as Rome, where cracks appeared at the thermal baths built in the 3rd century by the emperor Caracalla, Culture Ministry official Giuseppe Proietti said. The damage was not serious, and other Roman monuments suffered no consequences, he said.
Parts of many of the ancient churches and castles in and around L’Aquila have collapsed. Centuries-old churches in many isolated villages in the area are believed partly collapsed, and damage to ancient monuments has been reported as far as Rome.
L’Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, was near the epicenter about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of Rome. It is a quake-prone region that has had at least nine smaller jolts since the beginning of April. The quake struck at 3:32 a.m. The U.S. Geological Survey said the big quake was magnitude 6.3, but Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8. More than a dozen aftershocks followed.
Italy’s national police chief Antonio Manganelli said several people had been arrested for looting. He said those picked up were “caught while they were stealing from abandoned houses. It’s sad.”
The quake hit 26 towns and cities around L’Aquila, which lies in a valley surrounded by the Apennine mountains. Castelnuovo, a hamlet of about 300 people 15 miles (25 kilometers) southeast of L’Aquila, appeared hard hit, and five people were confirmed dead there. Another small town, Onno, was almost leveled.
“A few houses have remained standing, but just a few,” Stefania Pezzopane, provincial president of L’Aquila, told Corriere della Sera. Rescue workers in Onna, a different small town, with a population of about 250, said the town was virtually deserted as survivors sought shelter elsewhere.
The four-star, 133-room Hotel Duca degli Abruzzi in L’Aquila’s historic center was heavily damaged but still standing and it was not known if there were any casualties, said Ornella De Luca of the national civil protection agency in Rome. “The information is very fragmentary,” she said.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal funds to deal with the disaster, and canceled a visit to Russia so he could deal with the crisis.
Condolences poured in from around the world, including from President Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI and Abdullah Gul, president of quake-prone Turkey.
Slabs of walls, twisted steel supports, furniture and wire fences were strewn about the streets of L’Aquila, and gray dust carpeted sidewalks, cars and residents.
Residents and rescue workers hauled away debris from collapsed buildings by hand or in an assembly lines, passing buckets. Firefighters pulled a woman covered in dust from the debris of her four-story home. Rescue crews demanded quiet as they listened for signs of life from other people believed still trapped inside.
Elsewhere, a man dressed only in his underwear wept as he was pulled from the debris and embraced.
A body lay on the sidewalk, covered by a white sheet.
Parts of L’Aquila’s main hospital were evacuated because they were at risk of collapse, and only two operating rooms were in use. Bloodied victims waited in hospital hallways or in the courtyard and many were being treated in the open. A field hospital was being set up.
In the dusty streets, as aftershocks rumbled through, residents hugged one another, prayed quietly or frantically tried to call relatives. Residents covered in dust pushed carts full of clothes and blankets that they had thrown together before fleeing their homes.
“We left as soon as we felt the first tremors,” said Antonio D’Ostilio, 22, as he stood on a street in L’Aquila with a huge suitcase piled with clothes. “We woke up all of a sudden and we immediately ran downstairs in our pajamas.”
Evacuees converged on an athletics field on the outskirts of L’Aquila where a makeshift tent camp was being set up. Civil protection officials distributed bread and water to people who lay on the grass next to heaps of their belongings.
“It’s a catastrophe and an immense shock,” said resident Renato Di Stefano, who was moving with his family to the camp as a precaution. “It’s struck in the heart of the city, we will never forget the pain.”
The Culture Ministry said a wall of the 13th century Santa Maria di Collemaggio church collapsed and the bell tower of the Renaissance San Bernadino church also fell. The 16th century castle housing the Abruzzo National Museum was damaged.
This was Italy’s deadliest quake since Nov. 23, 1980, when one measuring 6.9-magnitude hit southern regions, leveling villages and causing some 3,000 deaths.
Many modern structures in Italy over recent decades have failed to hold up to the rigors of quakes along Italy’s mountainous spine, or in coastal cities like Naples. Despite warnings by geologists and architects, some of these buildings have not been retrofitted for seismic safety.
Pezzopane, the provincial president, said residents may have been lulled into complacency because so many smaller quakes had jolted the area, including two or three earlier in the night.
“Considering what happened, a bit more concern, more attention might have saved lives,” she said.
National officials insisted no quake can ever be predicted and that no evacuation could have been ordered on the basis of the recent jolts.
“There is no possibility of making any predictions on earthquakes. This is a fact in the world’s scientific community,” Civil protection chief Guido Bertolaso told reporters.
The last major quake to hit central Italy was a 5.4-magnitude temblor that struck the south-central Molise region on Oct. 31, 2002, killing 28 people, including 27 children who died when their school collapsed.
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