At least 37 people are believed to be dead while countless others trapped under the rubble after a series of intense earthquakes devastated towns in Central Italy overnight on Wednesday, Aug. 24.
The magnitude 6.2 quake first struck near the town of Accumoli in Rieti at 3:36 a.m., with tremors awakening sleeping residents in Rome about 100 miles away, Italian officials confirmed.
Mayor Stefano Petrucci confirmed earlier that six residents have been killed in Accumoli. Meanwhile, at least two residents were killed in Pescara del Tronto in Ascoli Piceno province, the New York Times reported. The town of Amatrice was extremely devastated and severely damaged by the quake.
"Half the town no longer exists," Amatrice Mayor Sergio Pirozzi said Wednesday. "Houses are no longer there."
According to Pirozzi, Amatrice had been cut off because of damages to roads and a bridge. Victims are buried in the debris, he said. In a live TV broadcast, he appealed for assistance, calling on emergency services to help clear roads.
"The aim now is to save as many lives as possible," added Pirozzi. "There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there."
But the death toll rose at daybreak when rescuers rushed to search for survivors in Accumoli, Amatrice and Pescara del Tronto, looking for trapped residents in leveled buildings and digging with bulldozers, shovels and their bare hands.
As daylight came, Pirozzi said the situation is "even more dreadful" that what they feared: buildings have collapsed, people were trapped under the ruins and there was "no sound of life," he told Reuters.
The earthquake also hit places leading to the Tyrrhenian coast. A witness in the popular seaside town of Sperlonga, Lazio reported that the historic city center had been seriously destroyed. News channels display photos of rubble-covered cars and crumbled buildings.
The 6.2 magnitude quake was felt from Italy's capital Rome to Bologna in the region of Emilia-Romagna — a broad area filled with dozens of small towns. Italian officials are having difficulties gauging the precise number of casualties or the damage inflicted as the ground trembled through the night.
"It was so strong," Lina Mercantini, a resident of Ceselli in Umbria, told Reuters. "It seemed the bed was walking across the room by itself with us on it."
Fabrizio Curcio, director of the country's Civil Protection agency, described the effects of the earthquake as "severe." Emergency procedures have since then been activated across the affected regions.
On social media, there are many posts of relatives or friends being trapped or buried in the rubble. Residents said rescue teams and ambulances are also having difficulties reaching mountainous areas where most towns can be reached along winding roads.
Italy is susceptible to earthquakes and is seismically active because it sits on two fault lines. The last major earthquake to hit Italy struck the city of L'Aquila in 2009.