Italian rescuers today frantically hunted for survivors of an earthquake which killed at least 23 people, including 20 children crushed when their school collapsed.
Emergency crews guided by voices under the rubble used cranes, sledgehammers, blowtorches and their bare hands to try to reach the youngsters, who had been celebrating Halloween.
The death toll mounted quickly after midnight. Firefighters said 23 people were confirmed dead – 21 children in the school and two women in nearby homes. More than a dozen children and one adult are thought to still be trapped.
The bodies were taken to a makeshift morgue at the town’s sports centre, where family members came to identify the dead.
The 5.4-magnitude quake hit the Campobasso area northeast of Naples in the Molise region at 11.33am (12.33pm Irish time) yesterday. San Giuliano di Puglia, a medieval farming village of about 1,195 people, was the hardest hit, with several buildings damaged.
Italy’s ANSA news agency said 3,000 people in the region were left homeless, unable or unwilling to sleep in their damaged houses.
The yellow nursery school in San Giuliano di Puglia collapsed entirely on itself, trapping 56 children, their teachers and two janitors inside as they celebrated a Halloween party. By mid-morning today, 26 children and three teachers had been rescued.
Anguished parents kept a vigil outside the wreckage, bundled in blankets against the evening chill, with temperatures around 11C (52F).
Applause burst from the tense crowd after one difficult rescue late last night. Residents cried, “Giovanni! Giovanni!” when the little boy was carried out on a stretcher.
“As soon as he came out he called me ‘Papi’ like he always does,” the boy’s father told RAI state television, which did not give his name.
“I immediately saw he was in good condition. He told me there are many other children still alive, a little shocked but still alive, so the hope is still there that they can save more.”
“I thank God for this gift he has given me,” he said.
Paramedic Antonio Licursi, covered in dust as he emerged from the pit, said he believed at least another dozen children were still trapped inside and officials said they still heard voices late into the night.
“That’s what we are basing the search on. We’re still hearing voices,” carabinieri Colonel Antonio Ianuzzi said at the scene.
One girl named Lilia told Italian television from her hospital bed, where she had her left hand in a small cast, that the children were drawing Pinocchio pictures, getting ready for their Halloween party, when the quake struck.
“I heard it crumble, and we screamed,” she said. She said she had not heard news her friend Melissa. “She wasn’t near me. I didn’t even hear her voice. I don’t know if she’s still alive.”
Children who had been in the school told Italian television that older students from the village had joined the youngsters yesterday to teach them about Halloween, which has grown increasingly popular in Italy.
While dozens of children were in the schoolhouse at the time of the quake, others had moved out to the garden for the Halloween festivities, perhaps saving lives, local reports said.
The government’s forestry department conducted an aerial survey of the small area hardest hit and determined that about 70% of the homes were damaged, with collapsed roofs or cracked walls, the AGI news agency said.
“The scenario is devastating,” Forestry Commander Luigi Falasca said. “Fortunately, the damage is limited to a restricted area.”
The school itself was built in 1954 and had had work done on it several times in past years, private TG5 television reported.
The quake’s epicentre was in Campobasso, a city about 50 miles northeast of Naples and about 140 miles southeast of Rome.
The 5.4-magnitude tremor was followed by at least two aftershocks, one with a 2.9 magnitude and another with a 3.7 magnitude – all with their epicentre around Campobasso, said Marco Ludovici, an official at the Civil Defence department in Rome.
The tremor was felt across the Adriatic in Croatia, particularly on the upper floors of apartment blocks, the Croatian Seismological Institute said.
Residents said the school toll could have been avoided if city officials had paid attention to a request from the parish priest, the Rev Ulisse Marinelli, to keep children home after a weaker earthquake hit the area overnight.
Rescue teams poured into the tiny village from nearby regions, and Premier Silvio Berlusconi arrived late last night saying all measures would be taken to help residents.
“There are no limits,” he said. “We have already decreed a state of emergency, and already put all means at their disposition.”
Also yesterday, a 3.7 magnitude quake hit Mount Etna, the Sicilian volcano which began erupting on Sunday. No damage was reported.
The National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome said two quakes - separated by 275 miles – were not connected.
In 1980, an earthquake in the area of Naples killed 2,570 people and left 30,000 homeless in the southern Campania and Basilicata regions.