- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

L’AQUILA, ITALY (AP) - A powerful earthquake in mountainous central Italy knocked down whole blocks of buildings early Monday as residents slept, killing at least 50 people and trapping many more, officials said. Tens of thousands were homeless.

The earthquake’s epicenter was about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of Rome near the medieval city of L’Aquila. It struck at 3:32 a.m. local time (0132 GMT, EDT Sunday) in a quake-prone region that has had at least nine smaller jolts since the beginning of April. The U.S. Geological Survey said Monday’s quake was magnitude 6.3, but Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, arriving in L’Aquila hours after the quake, said at least 50 people had been killed and that the toll was likely to rise as rescue crews clawed through the debris of fallen homes.

L’Aquila is the capital of the Abruzzo region and lies in a valley surrounded by the Apennine mountains. The quake hit 26 towns and cities in the area. Castelnuovo, a hamlet of about 300 people 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of L’Aquila, appeared hard hit, and five were confirmed dead there.

L’Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said about 100,000 people were homeless. It was not clear if that estimate included surrounding towns. Some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, officials said.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal funds to deal with the disaster, and canceled a visit to Russia so he could deal with the quake crisis.

Condolences poured in from around the world, including from President Barack Obama and President Abdullah Gul, president of quake-prone Turkey.

In L’Aquila, slabs of walls, twisted steel supports, furniture and wire fences were strewn about the streets and gray dust carpeted sidewalks, cars and residents.

As ambulances screamed through the city, firefighters aided by dogs worked feverishly to reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a student dormitory where half a dozen university students were believed still inside.

Outside the half-collapsed building, tearful young people huddled together, wrapped in blankets, some still in their slippers after being roused from sleep by the quake.

“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,” said student Luigi Alfonsi, 22. “I was in bed _ it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me.”

Residents and rescue workers hauled away debris from collapsed buildings by hand. Firefighters pulled a woman covered in dust from the debris of her four-story home. Rescue crews demanded quiet as they listened for signs of life from other people believed still trapped inside.

A body lay on the sidewalk, covered by a white sheet.

Parts of L’Aquila’s main hospital were evacuated because they were at risk of collapse, and only two operating rooms were in use. Bloodied victims waited in hospital hallways or in the courtyard and many were being treated in the open. A field hospital was being set up. Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi urged Italians to donate blood.

Many of L’Aquila’s modern buildings were damaged and the mayor said the historic center also suffered damage; access to the historic center was blocked. The Italian news agency ANSA said L’Aquila’s cathedral was damaged and the dome of a church had collapsed.

In the dusty streets, as aftershocks rumbled through, residents hugged one another, prayed quietly or frantically tried to call relatives. Residents covered in dust pushed carts full of clothes and blankets that they had thrown together before fleeing their homes.

“We left as soon as we felt the first tremors,” said Antonio D’Ostilio, 22, as he stood on a street in L’Aquila with a huge suitcase piled with clothes. “We woke up all of a sudden and we immediately ran downstairs in our pajamas.”

Stadiums and sporting fields were being readied to house the homeless, Civil Protection official Agostino Miozzo said.

“This means that the we’ll have several thousand people to assist over the next few weeks and months,” Miozzo told Sky Italia. “Our goal is to give shelter to all by tonight.”

At least one student from Greece was trapped in the debris and another was injured, the Greek Foreign Ministry said. Greece offered to send a rescue team to help, the ministry said.

The Israeli Embassy in Rome said officials were trying to make contact with a few Israeli citizens believed to be in the region who had not been in touch with their families. Embassy spokeswoman Rachel Feinmesser did not give an exact number.

The last major quake to hit central Italy was a 5.4-magnitude temblor that struck the south-central Molise region on Oct. 31, 2002, killing 28 people, including 27 children who died when their school collapsed.

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