- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

L'AQUILA, Italy | A powerful earthquake in mountainous central Italy knocked down whole blocks of buildings early Monday as residents slept, killing more than 100 people in the country's deadliest quake in nearly three decades. Tens of thousands were homeless and 1,500 were injured.

Civil protection official Roberto Forina said late Monday that authorities counted more than 100 bodies. But he could not confirm a report by the ANSA news agency that the death toll had reached 150. The Corriere della Sera newspaper reported more than 250 people were missing.

The quake felled whole blocks of buildings in the medieval city of L'Aquila and the surrounding area early Monday as residents slept.

Ambulances screamed through L'Aquila as firefighters with dogs and a crane worked feverishly to reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a university dormitory where a half-dozen students were thought still inside.

Outside the half-collapsed building, part of the University of L'Aquila, tearful young people huddled, wrapped in blankets, some in their slippers after being roused from sleep by the quake. Dozens managed to escape as the dorm walls fell around them, but hours after the quake, a body of a male student was pulled from the rubble.

“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.”

“There was water gushing out of broken water pipes, and the corridor which led to the stairs was partially blocked when a piece of the wall came down,” Mr. Alfonsi, his eyes filling with tears and his hands trembling, told the Associated Press.

About 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, officials said. L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said about 100,000 people were homeless. It was not clear whether the mayor's estimate included surrounding towns.

The quake also took a severe toll on the city's prized architectural heritage. L'Aquila was built as a mountain stronghold during the Middle Ages and has many prized Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings.

Damage to monuments was reported as far away as Rome, where cracks appeared at the thermal baths built in the 3rd century by the Emperor Caracalla, Culture Ministry official Giuseppe Proietti said. The damage was not serious, and other Roman monuments suffered no consequences, he said.

Parts of many of the ancient churches and castles in and around L'Aquila have collapsed. Centuries-old churches in many isolated villages in the area are thought partly collapsed.

L'Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, was near the epicenter about 70 miles northeast of Rome. It is a quake-prone region that has had at least nine smaller jolts since the beginning of April. The quake struck at 3:32 a.m.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the big quake was magnitude 6.3, but Italy's National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8 and more than a dozen aftershocks followed.

Prime Minister 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 crisis.

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

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