A powerful earthquake struck central Italy this morning, killing at least 20 people, collapsing buildings and leaving thousands of people homeless, officials and news reports said.
Officials said the death toll was likely to rise as rescue crews made their way through the debris.
Firefighters aided by dogs were trying to rescue people from crumbled homes, including a student dormitory in the city of L’Aquila where half a dozen students remained trapped.
Outside the half-collapsed dorm, tearful students huddled together wrapped in blankets, some still in their slippers.
The US Geological Survey said the magnitude of the quake was 6.3, though Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8.
The quake struck about 70 miles north-east of Rome at 3.32am local time (2.32 BST), officials said.
The Civil Protection Department said the epicentre was near L’Aquila, in the mountainous Abruzzo region.
By early morning, the death toll stood at 20, including five children, with some 30 people unaccounted for, carabinieri paramilitary police said. In addition to L’Aquila, the town of Castelnuovo appeared hard hit, with five of the dead there.
“It’s the worst tragedy since the start of the millennium,” said Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Civil Protection Department.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal funds to deal with the disaster. He said he was weighing whether to cancel a planned visit to Russia to deal with the crisis.
Residents and rescue workers were hauling away debris from collapsed buildings by hand while bloodied victims waited to be tended to in hospital hallways. On the city’s dusty streets, residents hugged one another, prayed quietly or frantically tried to call relatives.
“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 he had thrown together. “We woke up all of a sudden and we immediately ran downstairs in our pyjamas.”
Nearby, firefighters successfully 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.
Agostino Miozzo, an official with the Civil Protection Department, said between 10,000 and 15,000 buildings were damaged.
“This means that the we’ll have several thousand people to assist over the next few weeks and months,” Miozzo told Sky Italia. “Our goal is to give shelter to all by tonight.”
Four children died in L’Aquila after their houses collapsed, the ANSA news agency said. They quoted doctors at the main San Salvatore dell’Aquila hospital as saying there was nothing they could do for them.
ANSA said the dome of a church in L’Aquila collapsed, while the city’s cathedral also suffered damages.
L’Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said some 100,000 people had left their homes and that many buildings in the city’s historic centre were damaged.
A series of jolts have struck the area over the past two days.
L’Aquila, a medieval city, lies in a v alley surrounded by the Apennine mountains. It is the regional capital of the Abruzzo region, with about 70,000 inhabitants.
Bertolaso likened Monday’s quake to the one that struck the central Umbria region on September 26, 1997. That quake killed 10 people and devastated medieval buildings and churches across the region, including Assisi’s famed basilica.
The last major quake to hit central Italy was a 5.4-magnitude quake that struck the south-central Molise region on October 31, 2002, killing 28 people, including 27 children who died when their school collapsed.