ROME — A five-story apartment building collapsed in a matter of seconds here early Wednesday, killing at least 19 people, including three children, as they slept. Up to 12 others were missing and feared dead in a tragedy that mystified authorities.
Italians were stunned and puzzled by what happened in the middle-class neighborhood of Portuense, in southwestern Rome, and followed rescue efforts on radio and television throughout the day. One broadcaster burst into tears when a couple in their 50s, embracing under a mattress that had protected them, were pulled from the rubble alive more than 12 hours after the collapse.
By evening, it appeared that the couple, hospitalized with noncritical head, leg and stomach injuries, would be the only survivors.
Dogs sniffed for human scent as firefighters and neighbors used cranes, shovels and their bare hands to dig into the rubble--a compact pile of concrete blocks and broken furniture that sank into the ground. Not a wall remained standing.
Officials said it would take two more days to reach the bottom of the pile--and only then might the cause of the collapse become clear.
Thirty-three people from 15 families were believed to be sleeping on the building's three upper floors, above a ground-level print shop and the printing company's offices. Rescue workers found an empty crib, indicating that a baby was among the missing.
Neighbors said they were awakened about 3 a.m. by a "big bang" as the building crumbled in a huge cloud of dust. Fire officials ruled out an explosion, saying that no shattered glass flew from the building.
Fire Inspector Salvatore Fiadini said the collapse may have been caused by a structural fault or a "land slip."
"I've never seen such a thing," he said. "Normally there are some parts of the structure that are left standing [after a collapse]. But here the whole structure was flattened."
Some residents said they had heard that the area was mined for pozzuolana--volcanic ash used in making cement--before the apartment building went up in the 1950s. If true, they said, the mining may have left the ground too weak to support the building.
Others speculated that heavy machinery attached to the ceiling of the printing plant or stored in an attic may have pulled down the building.
Mayor Francesco Rutelli ordered an investigation and declared today a day of citywide mourning, with movie theaters and Christmas lights darkened.
"This is an enormous, incomprehensible tragedy," said Italian Interior Minister Rosa Russo Jervolino.
Pope John Paul II said he was deeply saddened. The Italian Senate observed a minute of silence.