- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

L’AQUILA, ITALY (AP) - A powerful earthquake struck central Italy early Monday, killing at least 20 people, causing entire blocks of buildings to collapse as residents slept inside and leaving thousands of people homeless, officials said.

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

Officials said the death toll was likely to rise as rescue crews clawed through the debris of fallen homes, searching for the dozens of people still unaccounted for.

Parts of L’Aquila’s main hospital were evacuated because they were at risk of collapse, forcing the wounded to be treated in the open air or taken elsewhere.

“It’s the worst tragedy since the start of the millennium,” said Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department.

As ambulances screamed through town, 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 dorm, tearful students huddled together, wrapped in blankets, some still in their slippers after being roused from sleep by the temblor.

“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.”

The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude of the quake was 6.3, though Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8.

The quake struck about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of Rome at 3:32 a.m. local time (0132 GMT), officials said. The Civil Protection Department said the epicenter was near L’Aquila, in the mountainous Abruzzo region.

By early morning, the death toll stood at 20, including five children, with some 30 people unaccounted for, carabinieri paramilitary police said. In addition to L’Aquila, the town of Castelnuovo appeared hard hit, with five confirmed dead there.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal funds to deal with the disaster. He scrapped a visit to Russia and planned to go to L’Aquila to deal with the crisis.

In L’Aquila, residents and rescue workers hauled away debris from collapsed buildings by hand while bloodied victims waited to be tended to in hospital hallways or outside in the hospital courtyard.

The regional health director, Roberto Marzetti, said only two operating rooms were working at L’Aquila’s hospital because the others were at risk of collapse. Civil protection crews were erecting a field hospital to deal with the influx of wounded.

On the city’s dusty streets, as aftershocks continued to rumble 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 hastily packed 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 he had thrown together. “We woke up all of a sudden and we immediately ran downstairs in our pajamas.”

Nearby, firefighters successfully 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.

Agostino Miozzo, an official with the Civil Protection Department, said between 10,000 and 15,000 buildings were damaged. He said stadiums and sporting fields were being readied to house the homeless.

“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.”

ANSA said the dome of a church in L’Aquila collapsed, while the city’s cathedral also suffered damage.

The Israeli Embassy in Rome said that 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.

A series of jolts have struck the area over the past two days.

L’Aquila, a medieval city, lies in a valley surrounded by the Apennine mountains. It is the regional capital of the Abruzzo region, with about 70,000 inhabitants.

Bertolaso likened Monday’s quake to the temblors that struck the central Umbria region on Sept. 26, 1997. That quake killed 10 people and devastated medieval buildings and churches, including Assisi’s famed basilica, across the region.

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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