Dozens Killed Powerful Earthquake Strikes Central Italy

A powerful earthquake struck central Italy early Monday morning. At least 90 bodies have been recovered from the rubble, and authorities are warning that at least 50,000 might be homeless. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has declared a state of emergency.

A massive earthquake caught many in their sleep at 3:32 a.m. Monday in the central Italian city of L'Aquila. Panicked people scrambled into the streets, and buildings several stories tall toppled like houses of cards. Hours after the disaster, survivors wandered about in a trance-like state covered in blankets as they inched their way along rubble-filled streets. Many have lost everything: relatives and friends, a roof over their head and all their belongings.

Early on Monday afternoon, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni estimated the number of dead to be at least 50, but the country's main news agency, ANSA, cited rescue workings as stating they had removed 92 bodies. At the moment, there are no reliable estimates on the number of people who might be buried beneath the rubble, and officials fear the number of dead could rise dramatically in the coming hours.

The earthquake hit around 70 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of Rome, and the epicenter was reported to be near L'Aquila, the capital city of the mountainous Abruzzo region with a population of 70,000. The US Geological Survey has put the quake's magnitude at 6.3, although Italian seismologists claim it was 5.8.

Thousands of buildings have been severely damaged or destroyed, and many are believed to be at risk of collapsing. Among the heavily damaged buildings is the city's largest hospital. Officials say only two of the hospital's operating rooms were still functioning, and ANSA has reported that the Italian military is dispatching a mobile army surgical hospital to the city. Helicopters are ferrying the most seriously injured to hospitals in neighboring cities.

Officials reported Monday afternoon that 10,000 to 15,000 homes had been badly damaged and that as many as 50,000 residents had been left homeless. Italian Interior Minister Maroni, who spoke at the scene of the disaster, said the government was making efforts to find hotels and emergency accomodations for survivors. "This means that we'll have several thousand people to assist over the next few weeks and months," Agostino Miozzo of Italy's Civil Protection Department told Sky Italia news. Aftershocks on Monday have complicated the search for victims.

Rescue services are said to be stretched to their limits as they struggle to cope with the aftermath and deal with the rising death toll. Residents are apparently trying to clear the debris using only their hands. Many of the survivors were still wearing their sleeping clothes.

The earthquake didn't last longer than 30 seconds, but it was still enough to completely destroy L'Aquila's historic city center. Eyewitnesses said the sound of the buildings' crumbling was like "a bomb exploding."

"We left as soon as we felt the first tremors," Antonio D'Ostilio, a 22-year-old city resident, told the Associated Press. "We woke up all of a sudden, and we immediately ran downstairs in our pajamas."

Maria Francesco, another L'Aquila resident, said the quake had been "like the Apocalypse." She said her home had been completely destroyed and that she had nothing left. In parts of the city, entire apartment blocks have collapsed. "Our home was completely destroyed -- we barely managed to get out," resident Vittorio Perfetto told the Rome daily La Repubblica.

In many areas, aid didn't arrive until hours after the earthquake. "I was buried beneath the rubble for three hours before the rescue workers came," said Guido Mariani. But Interior Minister Maroni said rescue workers were dispatched quickly and couldn't have arrived at the scene any sooner. "They were already on their way 15 minutes after the quake," he said.

Access to the region hit by the earthquake is difficult. Traffic on the motorway between L'Aquila and Rome was restricted on Monday to rescue vehicles and those carrying relief supplies. A flight ban has also been imposed to make it easier for helicopters to transport victims in the area.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has declared a state of emergency and canceled a planned visit to Russia in order to focus on the crisis. Reports say that he is planning to visit L'Aquila in person.

The quake is Italy's worst since a 1980 tremor in the south of the country that killed 2,735 people. Earthquakes in Italy often have particularly severe impacts due to the large numbers of centuries-old buildings.

dgs -- with wire reports
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