A strong earthquake struck central Italy early today, jolting residents out of their sleep as their homes came crashing down.
According to a Times of India report, the death toll has climbed up to 37 in two hard-hit towns. The rescue crews rushed to these places to dig out survivors from the rubble.
"The town isn't here anymore," Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi said.
The magnitude 6 quake struck at 3:36 am and was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, including the capital Rome where residents felt a long swaying followed by aftershocks.
The hardest-hit towns were Amatrice and Accumoli near Rieti, some 100 kilometres northeast of Rome, though the quake was felt beyond the Lazio region into Umbria and Le Marche on the Adriatic coast.
The center of Amatrice was devastated, with entire palazzos razed to the ground. Rocks and metal tumbled onto the streets and dazed residents huddled in piazzas as dozens of aftershocks continued into the early morning hours, some as strong as 5.1.
"The whole ceiling fell but did not hit me," marveled resident Maria Gianni. "I just managed to put a pillow on my head and I wasn't hit luckily, just slightly injured my leg."
As daylight dawned, residents, civil protection workers and even priests began digging out with shovels, bulldozers and their bare hands, trying to reach survivors. There was a sigh of relief as a woman was pulled out alive from one building, followed by a dog.
"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.
The devastation harked back to the 2009 quake that killed more than 300 people in and around L'Aquila, which sent emergency teams today to help with the rescue.
The Italian geological service put the magnitude at 6.0.
The US Geological Survey put the magnitude at 6.2 with the epicenter at Norcia, about 170 kilometres northeast of Rome, and with a relatively shallow depth of 10 kilometres.
"I don't know what to say. We are living this immense tragedy," said the Rev. Savino D'Amelio, an Amatrice parish priest. "We are only hoping there will be the least number of victims possible and that we all have the courage to move on."
The mayor of the quake-hit town of Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, said at least six people had died there, including a family of four, and two others. "There are deaths," he told state-run RaiNews24.