Rescue crews using bulldozers and their bare hands raced to dig out survivors from a strongthat reduced three central Italian towns to rubble Wednesday. The death toll stood at 159, but the number of dead and missing was uncertain given the huge number of vacationers in the area for summer’s final days.
Residents wakened before dawn by the temblor emerged from their crumbled homes to find what they described as apocalyptic scenes “like Dante’s Inferno,” with entire blocks of buildings turned into piles of sand and rock, thick dust choking the air and a putrid smell of gas.
“The town isn’t here anymore,” said Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of the hardest-hit town, Amatrice. “I believe the toll will rise.”
The magnitude 6 quake struck at 3:36 a.m. and was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, including Rome, where residents woke to a long swaying followed by aftershocks. The temblor shook the Lazio region and Umbria and Le Marche on the Adriatic coast, a highly seismic area that has witnessed major quakes in the past.
Dozens of people were pulled out alive by rescue teams and volunteers that poured in from around Italy.
“She’s alive!” two women cheered as they ran up the street in Pescara del Tronto, one of the three hardest hit hamlets, after a 10-year-old girl was pulled from the rubble after nightfall.
And there were wails when bodies emerged.
“Unfortunately, 90 percent we pull out are dead, but some make it, that’s why we are here,” said Christian Bianchetti, a volunteer from Rieti who was working in devastated Amatrice where flood lights were set up so the rescue could continue through the night.
CBS News correspondent Seth Doane reports the winding rural roads made it difficult for rescuers and heavy equipment to reach the remote mountain communities.
Premier Matteo Renzi visited the zone Wednesday, greeted rescue teams and survivors. He promised the quake-prone area that “No family, no city, no hamlet will be left behind.”
Italy’s civil protection agency put the death toll at 159. At least 368 others were injured and officials have warned the casualty count could rise as rescue crews continue searching affected areas.
Worst affected were the tiny towns of Amatrice and Accumoli near Rieti, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Rome, and Pescara del Tronto, some 25 kilometers further east. Italy’s civil protection agency set up tent cities around each hamlet to accommodate the thousands of homeless.
Italy’s health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, visiting the devastated area, said many of the victims were children: The quake zone is a popular spot for Romans with second homes, and the population swells in August when most Italians take their summer holiday before school resumes.
The medieval center of Amatrice was devastated, with the hardest-hit half of the city cut off by rescue crews digging by hand to get to trapped residents.
The birthplace of the famed spaghetti all’amatriciana, the city was full for this weekend’s planned festival honoring its native dish. Some 70 guests filled its top Hotel Roma, famed for its amatriciana, and a rescue worker said at least five bodies were pulled from the hotel’s rubble. The fate of the dozens of other guests wasn’t immediately known.
Amatrice is made up of 69 hamlets that teams from around Italy were working to reach with sniffer dogs, earth movers and other heavy equipment to reach residents. In the city center, rocks and metal tumbled onto the streets and dazed residents huddled in piazzas as more than 200 aftershocks jolted the region throughout the day, some as strong as magnitude 5.1.