At least 38 people are dead and 150 missing in Italy after an earthquake rocked a string of mountain towns to the northeast of Rome early on Wednesday, flattening houses and heaving up roads.
In the historic town of Amatrice, voted one of the country’s most beautiful last year, aerial photographs showed entire areas leveled to the ground.
"The town is no longer there," mayor Sergio Pirozzi told La Repubblica, adding that "dozens of people" remained trapped under rubble.
Italy's geological service reported the magnitude as 6.0, while the US Geological Survey put it at 6.2 with the epicenter in Norcia, about 105 miles northeast of Rome, where it shook buildings. Tremors were felt as far away as the southern port city of Naples. In the hardest-hit towns, as many as 39 aftershocks followed the initial quake, some of them rivaling it in intensity.
The earthquake is the fourth-largest in recent decades, with the last major one striking in 2009, when a 6.3-magnitude event killed more than 300 people in the city of L’Aquila. Several Italian seismologists were sentenced to prison terms for downplaying the risk that a quake could pose to the city.
"But just as predicting an earthquake at a particular time and place is impossible," wrote Stephanie Pappas for LiveScience at the time, "so is assigning precise probabilities. If you ever hear someone say that there's a 72 percent chance of an earthquake in your town next Tuesday, know that you are talking to a charlatan."
When the third-largest quake hit in 2012, the Monitor reported that devastation from earthquakes highlights issues with building codes in the nation because " the vast majority of Italy's buildings date from World War II, when the population exploded and the nation needed to rebuild quickly after heavy bombing."
'It always happens – there's a sense of urgency right after a major quake, but in the end we never manage to get stuff done,' says Leopoldo Freyrie, president of the National Council of Architects, who claims his organization 'has been trying to raise the issue for almost 20 years.'
The problem, explains Mr. Freyrie, is that Italy's buildings are too old and poorly constructed: 'The danger lies not so much in ancient monuments, as in the buildings constructed between the late 1940s and the early 1970s: These tend to be very dangerous.'
The head of Italy's civil protection service, Fabrizio Curcio, pointed to the relatively shallow depth of the quake (about 6 miles) as one reason for its deadliness.
"Quakes with this magnitude at this depth in our territory in general create building collapses, which can result in deaths," he told the Associated Press, adding that the sparsely populated area swells with vacationers in summer months seeking to escape the heat of the capital.
"It's all young people here, it's holiday season, the town festival was to have been held the day after tomorrow so lots of people came for that," Amatrice resident Giancarlo told Reuters, as he sat in the road wearing just his underclothes.
"It's terrible, I'm 65-years-old and I have never experienced anything like this, small tremors, yes, but nothing this big. This is a catastrophe."
Two Afghan girls who had come to the town as refugees were among those missing, according to La Repubblica, which described a group of Afghan refugees as conducting a desperate search for them among the remains of the destroyed house where they had been staying.
Twenty-eight of the deaths occurred in Amatrice and nearby Accumoli, the newspaper reported, with the rest coming in Pescara del Tronto farther east. As dawn broke, residents and civil protection workers in those towns were busy clawing through the rubble with shovels, bulldozers, and bare hands, for lack of heavy equipment.
"We need chain saws, shears to cut iron bars, and jacks to remove beams. Everything, we need everything," civil protection worker Andrea Gentili told The Associated Press.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in a short televised address that he would visit the disaster area on Wednesday.
"No one will be left alone, no family, no community, no neighborhood,” he said, according to Reuters. “We must get down to work ... to restore hope to this area which has been so badly hit.
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.