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Death toll in Italy quake on the rise

Buildings that had stood for hundreds of years lie in ruins after the 6.3 quake that has killed at least 92. Cries for help are heard from the rubble, and thousands of people are in the streets bracing for aftershocks.

April 07, 2009|Henry Chu and Maria De Cristofaro

LONDON AND ROME — Past glories and future hopes came crashing down together in central Italy amid a powerful earthquake Monday that crumbled centuries-old churches and claimed the lives of at least 150 people, leaving hundreds more injured and thousands homeless.

As dawn broke this morning, rescue workers in the mountainous region of Abruzzo continued searching for scores of people believed buried in the rubble of buildings that in some cases had stood fast since medieval times. The ruined structures included an ornate basilica where a 13th century pope was crowned and an imposing castle full of priceless relics.

The city of L'Aquila, near the quake's epicenter, was transformed from a historic town built of warm, honey-colored stone into a disaster scene cloaked in choking gray dust.

Residents who had been sleeping peacefully were jolted awake by the 6.3 temblor, which ripped through the area about 3:30 a.m. Monday after weeks of tremors and subterranean rumbles that hinted at the possibility of worse to come. The violent shaking of a few seemingly eternal seconds leveled homes and dislodged masonry that smashed to pieces on the pavement and slammed into cars, crushing them.

Survivors wandered around, dazed, for hours, some of them still in their pajamas, others clutching mementos and random belongings grabbed before the rush outside into predawn blackness.

Authorities said that as many as 50,000 residents had been made homeless by the temblor.

Around 1 a.m. today an aftershock that lasted for a few seconds could be felt as far away as Rome, but it appeared to cause no further damage.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency and canceled a trip to Moscow even as critics complained of official failure to strengthen buildings in an area prone to seismic activity. Repeated tremors had been reported over the last few months in Abruzzo, which led one local scientist to warn of an impending large quake before authorities blamed him for causing public panic with allegedly unfounded predictions.

As dusk fell Monday and temperatures dropped, relief workers pitched tents for the displaced.

Officials said 4,000 hotel rooms would be set aside for refugees of the quake.

Homes were leveled, cars were crunched by falling masonry and dust was everywhere in L'Aquila, a town of about 70,000 people approximately 60 miles northeast of Rome and close to the epicenter. Strong aftershocks rattled nerves, complicated the rescue effort and caused already weakened buildings in the regional capital to shed tiles in sprays that forced bystanders to scurry for cover.

"The damage is incalculable. Entire buildings have collapsed, innumerable homes destroyed or rendered unsafe. Many public buildings have been damaged," Stefania Pezzopane, the president of L'Aquila's province, told an Italian news agency.

Among the fallen structures were churches and other buildings of inestimable historical value, some dating back to medieval times, according to Italy's Ministry of Culture. The apse of L'Aquila's Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, a pink-and-white architectural gem that witnessed a papal coronation in 1294, collapsed. The temblor also razed a beautiful archway built in the 16th century to honor the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The tower of the city's Renaissance-era Church of San Bernardino came tumbling down, as did part of a castle from the same period that now houses a national museum.

Old churches and castles dot the scenic Abruzzo countryside, making it a popular tourist destination. But authorities appealed to visitors to refrain from going to the area so as not to hamper relief efforts.

Outlying villages were hit hard, with one hamlet, Onna, completely flattened, local media reported.

Reached by telephone in the village of Paganica, Peter Civisca, who runs a bed-and-breakfast, said he was staying put inside.

"Our house is modern and withstood the shock, but people have been killed here," he said. "We've been having tremors for the last six months, but we've never had anything this big."

In L'Aquila, tearful students wrapped in blankets huddled outside a partially collapsed university dormitory, waiting for word of missing classmates.

"We managed to come down with other students, but we had to sneak through a hole in the stairs as the whole floor came down," Luigi Alfonsi, 22, told the Associated Press, his hands trembling. "I was in bed -- it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me."

In some places, volunteers and rescue workers scrabbled at debris with their bare hands, afraid that heavy equipment might cause further damage. At times they shushed onlookers in order to catch the possible cries or scratchings of survivors beneath the rubble. As darkness fell, rain made the work even more difficult.

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