One of the worst quakes to hit northeast Italy in hundreds of years rattled the region around Bologna early Sunday, killing at least four people, collapsing factories and sending residents running out into the streets, emergency services said.
The magnitude-6.0 temblor struck at 4:04 a.m., with its epicenter about 22 miles north of Bologna at a relatively shallow depth of 3.2 miles, the US Geological Survey said.
Civil defense agency official Adriano Gumina said the quake was the worst in the region since the 1300s. It left bell towers cracked, chunks of church facades lying in the streets, and roofs caved in.
Agency chief Franco Gabrielli put the death toll from quake damage at four — all overnight-shift factory workers who died as buildings collapsed in three separate locations. In addition, he said, two women died — apparently of heart attacks possibly sparked by fear, shortly after the quake rocked the area.
Sky TG24 TV reported one of them was about 100 years old.
Gabrielli said "dozens" were injured, although it was too soon for a definitive count.
Two of the dead were workers at a ceramics factory in the town of Sant'Agostino di Ferrara, who died when the cavernous building collapsed into a pile of rubble, leaving twisted metal supports jutting out at odd angles amid the mangled roof.
"This is immense damage but the worst part is we lost two people," said fellow worker Stefano Zeni. News reports said one of the dead had worked the shift of an ill colleague. Elsewhere in the town, another worker was found dead under factory rubble.
In the town of Ponte Rodoni di Bondeno, a worker also died as his factory collapsed, news reports said, citing emergency workers.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his traditional Sunday appearance from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square, said he was "spiritually close" to those affected by the quake, and asked people to join him in prayers to God for mercy for the dead and relief for the wounded.
Emilio Bianco, receptionist at Modena's Canalgrande hotel — housed in an ornate 18th century palazzo — said the quake "was a strong one, and it lasted quite a long time." The hotel suffered no damage and Modena itself was spared, but guests spilled into the streets as soon as the quake hit, he said.
Many people were still awake at 4 a.m. and milling about town since stores and restaurants were open all night. Museums were supposed to have remained open as well, but closed following the bombing Saturday of a school in southern Italy that killed one person.
The epicenter was between the towns of Finale Emilia, San Felice sul Panaro, and Sermide but felt as far away as Tuscany and northern Alto Adige. One woman in Finale Emilia told Sky a child had been trapped in her bedroom by falling rubble for two hours before she was rescued.
The initial quake was followed around an hour later by a 5.1-magnitude temblor, USGS said. And it was preceded by a 4.1-temblor.
In 2009, a temblor killed more than 300 people in the central city of L'Aquila, where the historic center is still largely uninhabited and in ruins.