L'AQUILA, Italy, April 7, 2009 (AFP) - Rescuers scrambled in the dark Tuesday to find survivors from a powerful earthquake in central Italy that killed at least 150 people as thousands of homeless sought shelter in hastily built tent cities.
With nightfall adding to the driving rain hampering the search, emergency services said 100 people had been pulled alive from the rubble of Renaissance and Baroque buildings around the historic town L'Aquila since the quake struck early Monday.
|A woman, still alive 20 hours after the earthquake, is carried by rescue volunteers on 7 April 2009 in L'aquila (AFP photo)|
The government has estimated that up to 70,000 people have been left homeless by the quake which measured magnitude 6.2 that damaged 10,000 buildings, many beyond repair.
The epicentre was under L'Aquila and massive destruction was reported for 30 kilometers (20 miles) in all directions from the town. The nearby villages of Villa Sant'Angelo and Borgo di Castelnuovo were practically wiped out.
Many residents fled L'Aquila, some even on foot. Others were lucky enough to find shelter in army barracks, stadiums and sports centres as overnight temperatures were expected to dip to four degrees Celsius (39 Fahrenheit).
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency in the Abruzzo region and cancelled a trip to Russia in order to visit L'Aquila, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Rome.
He said an initial 30 million euros (40 million dollars) had been earmarked to help the region.
Rescue workers said at least 150 people were killed, of which 98 had already been identified, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. while Berlusconi told a news conference here that 1,500 people were injured.
"No one will be abandoned to his fate," he vowed, adding that a tent village was being set up that could accommodate between 16,000 and 20,000 people.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni pledged 1,700 additional rescuers, including 1,500 firefighters.
He said rescue efforts would continue working "day and night", and television footage showed rescue workers in L'Aquila toiling under huge lights after night fell.
But much of the town was quiet in the evening as most residents had left.
"Some of the inhabitants have left of their own will, while others have been escorted by the authorities," a public safety official told AFP.
"You can say that most of the old city has been emptied of its residents," adding that it was mostly elderly people who decided to stay.
The quake struck just after 3:30 am (0130 GMT) and lasted about 30 seconds, bringing down many historic buildings, including the dome on the 16th century San Bernardino church. The city's cathedral was also damaged.
Roofs caved in on sleeping inhabitants and boulders fell off mountain slopes blocking many roads. At least five children were among the dead in L'Aquila, according to police.
Doctors treated people in the open air outside L'Aquila's main hospital as only one operating room was functioning.
L'Aquila resident Maria Francesco said: "It was the apocalypse, 20 minutes of hell, our house collapsed. It's destroyed, and there's nothing left to recover."
"It's a scandal what's happened," she told AFP. "For the past three months there have been regular tremors, and they've been getting stronger and stronger!"
Luigi D'Andrea, a student, was asleep when the quake struck and escaped through a neighbour's flat, only to return to recover his computer. "I'm very lucky I wasn't hurt, but now I don't know what to do, whether I should leave here or not. I'll wait and see."
L'Aquila suffered the biggest toll while police reported deaths in the towns and villages of Castelnuovo, Poggio Picenze, Torminparte, Fossa, Totani and Villa Sant'Angelo, ANSA reported.
Offers of help poured in from around the world.
"We want to send our condolences to the families there," US President Barack Obama said during an official visit in Turkey.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the US embassy in Rome would provide 50,000 dollars in emergency relief funding, while US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi telephoned Berlusconi to offer condolences.
Italian authorities told countries offering assistance they did not need rescue teams.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon was "saddened by the loss of life and destruction of property in central Italy," his spokeswoman said.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said his country was shocked by the tragedy, adding: "We sympathise with those who have suffered and share their sorrow."
Pope Benedict XVI sent his prayers, the Vatican said.
Italy is criss-crossed by two fault lines, making it one of Europe's most quake-vulnerable regions, with some 20 million people at risk.