At least 90 people were killed and 1,500 wounded in an earthquake that rocked central Italy today, officials said.
Thousands of others were left homeless and there were fears the toll could be much higher as rescuers continued to search through the rubble of hundreds of collapsed buildings.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi flew to the quake’s epicentre near the medieval city of L’Aquila, about 70 miles from Rome, after declaring a state of emergency.
Mr Berlusconi held a press conference in L’Aquila to warn that more quakes were possible and said no one would be allowed to remain in damaged homes.
He said many buildings in the city’s historic centre were at risk of collapse.
The 6.3 magnitude quake hit at 3.32am local time (0232 Irish time) in a region that has had at least nine smaller jolts since the beginning of April.
L’Aquila’s Mayor Massimo Cialente said 100,000 people had left their homes and that many buildings in the city’s historic centre were damaged. Slabs of walls, twisted steel supports, furniture and wire fences were strewn about the streets and dust carpeted sidewalks, cars and residents.
As ambulances screamed through the city, firefighters aided by tracker dogs worked to reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a student dormitory where half a dozen university students were believed still inside.
The town of Castelnuovo also appeared hard hit, with five confirmed dead there.
Residents and rescue workers hauled away debris from collapsed buildings by hand.
Parts of L’Aquila’s main hospital were evacuated because amid fears they could collapse, forcing the wounded to be treated in the open air or taken elsewhere.
Victims waited to be tended to in hospital hallways or outside in the hospital courtyard. Only two operating rooms were working. Civil protection crews were erecting a field hospital to deal with the influx of wounded.
On the city’s streets, as aftershocks continued to rumble through, residents hugged one another, prayed quietly or frantically tried to call relatives. Others pushed carts full of clothes and blankets that they had hastily packed 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 pyjamas.”
Agostino Miozzo, an official with the Civil Protection Department, said between 10,000 and 15,000 buildings were damaged. He said stadiums and sports fields were being readied to house the homeless.
“This means that the we’ll have several thousand people to assist over the next few weeks and months. Our goal is to give shelter to all by tonight,” he said.
L’Aquila lies in a valley surrounded by the Apennine mountains. It is the regional capital of the Abruzzo region, with about 70,000 inhabitants.
The last major quake to hit central Italy was a 5.4-magnitude shock that struck the south-central Molise region on October 31, 2002, killing 28 people, including 27 children who died when their school collapsed.