SALETTA, Italy — A strong, shallow earthquake devastated towns in central Italy early Wednesday, killing at least 73 people and placing rescuers in a desperate race against time to try to rescue survivors from the rubble.
Authorities scrambled to mobilize rescue teams, heavy equipment and medical staff into the most devastated areas, remote villages set amid mountainous terrain, which are only accessible by local roads.
Italy’s Civil Protection agency said 73 people had been killed in the 6.2 magnitude quake, 53 of them in the town of Amatrice, and at least 100 people were injured. Other fatalities were reported in the nearby towns of Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto.
The death toll is expected to rise as rescue teams work through the rubble, with regular aftershocks posing a continuing threat.
More than 1,000 people have been displaced by the quake, and the Civil Protection agency says no residents will be allowed to sleep in the devastated town of Amatrice tonight.
Addressing the nation Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi vowed to spare no effort in the critical window following the quake when lives could still be saved.
“In difficult times, Italy knows what to do,” he said.
Amatrice mayor: ‘The town is no more’
The towns at the epicenter of the quake — Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto — are now scenes of devastation, with what were once charming three-story buildings pancaked by the disaster.
Aerial footage released by Italian state police showed widespread devastation, with only some structures left standing. Much of the housing in the area — unreinforced brick or concrete frame buildings — were vulnerable to earthquakes, according to the US Geological Survey, and offered little resistance to the powerful temblor.
Amatrice, a town of about 2,000 people in the north of Italy’s Lazio region, is in ruins. But amid the rubble, the town’s clock tower still stood tall, with the clock stopped at the exact time the quake struck.
“The town is no more,” Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told CNN affiliate Rai.
The towns, situated amidst remote, mountainous terrain, are particularly popular in the summer months with tourists seeking a scenic getaway from the heat of the city.
Red Cross spokesman Tommaso della Longa said the fluctuating population during the vacation season made it hard to know exactly how many people might be trapped in the debris.
Amatrice, known for its traditional all’amatriciana pasta sauce, had been gearing up to hold a festival celebrating the pork jowl, chili and pecorino recipe this weekend, with many visitors expected.
Desperate rescue efforts
Residents have joined together in frantic rescue attempts to try to save their neighbors, improvising with whatever equipment they have at their disposal.
“We’re digging, digging… hoping to find someone alive,” Stefano Petrucci, mayor of Accumoli, told Rai.
In the village of Saletta, a tiny settlement of about 20 residents 2 kilometers from Amatrice, CNN saw residents digging with their bare hands to try to rescue their neighbors from the rubble of their collapsed two-story home.
Local residents — among the first responders at the scene — called the names of their missing neighbors as they tried to claw into what remained of their bedroom. Rescue dogs inspected the rubble, to no avail.
With heavy lifting equipment yet to reach the isolated village, people used tractors, farm equipment and tools from their homes in an attempt to shift the wreckage from the old stone villas in the area. Many settlements in the area are only accessible by small roads, posing a challenge for authorities to get their heavy machinery to disaster sites.
Residents stood stunned on the roadside, coated with a film of dust from the quake, still dressed in the pajamas they were wearing when they fled their houses. Many were crying and holding each other as aftershocks continued to jolt the ground.
Survivors pulled from rubble
Many survivors have been pulled from the rubble alive.
Locals in Accumoli described working furiously to free two people trapped in a collapsed home, moving stone by stone to clear the site. The residents managed to pull out one person. A fire unit finally reached the site after three hours and was able to free the remaining survivor.
Italy’s State Forestry Corps tweeted footage of a rescue operation underway in the rural town of Capodacqua, where a woman’s arm can be seen beneath the debris.
“Are you able to breathe a bit?” asks the rescuer.
“Only a bit,” says the woman, who is reassured that help is on the way.
In Amatrice, rescue workers have been targeting their efforts by calling the cellphones of missing residents, and trying to reach those who answer. If there is no answer, rescuers move on to the next person.
Quake was like ‘a bulldozer’
The powerful earthquake hit 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southeast of Norcia at 3:36 a.m. (9:36 p.m. Tuesday ET), at a depth of about 10 kilometers.
Emma Tucker, deputy editor of British newspaper The Times, was in Italy’s Marche region, about 85 kilometers from the epicenter, when her house started “trembling, shaking… an absolutely appalling noise.”
“It felt like someone had put a bulldozer over the house and was trying to knock it down,” she told CNN.
Eleonora Romendini, who was also in the Marche region, said she was uncertain whether to remain in her home after the quake. But after the third powerful aftershock she decided to run outside to the street, alongside stunned neighbors.
“It was very shocking,” she said. “We were very scared.”
The powerful jolt was felt as far away as Rome, 100 miles from the epicenter.
“It lasted for at least 30 seconds. The entire hotel was shaking,” said Charlotte Smith, coach of Elon University women’s basketball team in North Carolina, who was in Rome with her players when the quake hit.
“It was pretty terrifying,” she said.
The university released a statement later, saying the team was headed back to Charlotte, North Carolina.
“The team was in Rome last night and early this morning and felt the aftershock of the 6.2-magnitude earthquake in central Italy. The team sends its condolences to those affected by yesterday’s earthquake,” the statement said.
Pope calls for prayers
Pope Francis called for prayers for those affected by the disaster while Italian President Sergio Mattarella said “the entire country should rally with solidarity around the affected populations.”
“At the moment we need to employ all our forces to save human lives, treat the injured and ensure the best conditions for the people displaced,” he said.
The leaders of France, Germany and Russia all expressed their sympathy over the disaster, while the Italian Voluntary Blood Association made an appeal for people to donate blood to help treat those affected.
Italy is no stranger to deadly quakes. In May 2012, a pair of earthquakes killed dozens of people in northern Italy, while in April 2009, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit in the Aquila region of central Italy, killing 295. The earthquake Wednesday struck an area close to the 2009 earthquake.