At least 50 people were killed, including two babies, and 150 people are missing, believed to be trapped under rubble after the 6.2-magnitude quake struck at 3.30am local time while villagers slept in their beds.
Today rescuers spoke of hearing children’s screams from the rubble and locals were spotted frantically digging with their bare hands to try and save loved ones.
The quake which devastated the Umbrian mountainside towns and villages of Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata del Tronto and Pescara del Tronto was so powerful that it even rocked buildings in the centre of Rome more than 100 miles away and was felt as far away as Croatia.
Survivors today described ‘apocalyptic’ scenes in towns and villages near the city of Perugia – the capital of the tourist-packed Umbrian region, which is especially popular with British holidaymakers.
The quake’s epicentre was near Norcia in Umbria, about 105 miles north east of Rome, and falling bridges and landslides meant some areas are still cut off with emergency teams only able to get there on foot.
The mayor of Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, said this morning: ‘My town isn’t here anymore’ as people were carried out of ruined buildings on stretchers and people desperately searched the debris for survivors or sobbed as they inspected their own ruined homes.
Photographer Emiliano Grillotti said that in Accumoli he saw over 15 people digging with their bare hands to save a family of four with two children. He said: ‘I can hear one of the children screaming’.
Today’s disaster is the biggest in the region since April 2009 when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake occurred 28 miles to the south east of Norcia near the town of L’Aquila, killing 295 people and injuring 1,000. That disaster led to lengthy recriminations over lax building controls and the failure of authorities to warn residents that a quake could be imminent.
The first victims of the devastating quake were an elderly couple whose home collapsed in Pescara del Tronto, in the Marche region, around ten miles from the epicentre. A family of four, including a eight-month-old baby and his brother, nine, were also reported dead in the town of Accumoli.
Two brothers, aged four and seven, were pulled from the rubble nearby after hiding under a bed with their grandmother as the building fell down. Some 100 people were still unaccounted for in the village of Arquata del Tronto.
A newborn baby was also found dead after being pulled from a family home in the center of Arquata del Tronto.
The quake hit during the summer when the populations of the towns and villages in the area, normally low during the rest of the year, are swelled by holidaymakers.
One person has died and a family of four including two young children, aged 8 months and 9 years, are feared dead in their collapsed house in Accumoli, according to its mayor.
Stefano Petrucci said: ‘Now that daylight has come, we see that the situation is even more dreadful than we feared, with buildings collapsed, people trapped under the rubble and no sound of life.
‘We have a tragedy here. Four people are under the rubble, but they are not showing any sign of life. Two parents and two children.
The quake also destroyed homes and buried people under rubble in the small town of Amatrice, where many more are feared dead.
‘The roads in and out of town are cut off. Half the town is gone,’ said the town’s mayor Sergio Pirozzi.
He added: ‘There are people under the rubble… There’s been a landslide and a bridge might collapse. The situation is dramatic, there are many dead. I cannot give a toll for now because rescue efforts are under way and it is very, very difficult’.
The centre of Amatrice was devastated, with entire palazzos razed to the ground. Rocks and metal tumbled on to the streets and dazed residents huddled in piazzas as aftershocks continued into the early hours.
‘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.’
A resident of the hamlet of Illica, north of hard-hit Amatrice, reached for a literary reference to describe the scene after the earthquake hit.
Agostino Severo, a Rome resident visiting Illica, said: ‘We came out to the piazza, and it looked like Dante’s Inferno. People crying for help, help. Rescue workers arrived after one hour… one and a half hours.’
Another resident said she had been woken by the shaking in time to witness the wall of her bedroom cracking open. She was able to escape into the street with her children.
Before and After Photos: HERE