AMATRICE, Italy — A sound like the loudest of thunder, the very air seeming to tremble, a reverberation sensed bone-deep: The earthquake’s night-time terror was as great a departure as could be imagined from the gentle summertime rhythms of Italian hill-town life.
The powerful temblor early Wednesday, Italy’s deadliest in nearly a decade, devastated a string of picturesque villages nestled in the Apennine mountains, killing at least 247 people and injuring hundreds. It left thousands homeless and others still missing as rescuers scoured the rubble — homes and schools, churches and convents — for signs of life.
“It was a ‘boom’ — but it was noise you felt through your bones, rather than heard,” said 19-year-old student Alessio Serrafini, sitting stunned on a park bench in the town of Amatrice, approximately 85 miles northeast of Rome, recounting the moment when the quake hit.
As he spoke in a near-whisper, yet another aftershock rumbled through — one of dozens of strong jolts that caused debris-showered rescuers to joke grimly about joining the dead whose bodies they had uncovered.
Terrified survivors, some of them having escaped clad only in underwear or pajamas, spent hours outdoors, first huddling in blankets in the predawn chill, then sweltering in the afternoon heat.
Italian emergency personnel set up shelters and urged quake victims to come away and try to rest, but many remained glued to the scene of collapsed structures, where the sound of heavy equipment and the shouts of rescuers echoed into the evening.
Village clocks stopped when the initial jolt hit — at 3:36 a.m. — and aerial photographs showed the scope of devastation, gray dust and piles of masonry replacing what had been quaint medieval streets and piazzas.
Onlookers made the sign of the cross as rescuers pulled bodies from the rubble, loading them onto doors and planks that served as makeshift stretchers. A church’s garden became a temporary morgue, with rows of corpses covered with bloodstained sheets.
“There will be a lot more coming,” Father Savino D’Amelio, a parish priest, said sadly as he walked among the dead.
The toll rose throughout the day, and officials said more bodies might be recovered as rescuers dug through toppled buildings in remote areas.
By late Wednesday, the death toll had reached 159, according to Italy’s civil protection agency.
Amid the wreckage, there were small victories. Ten hours after the quake, two small children were pulled still breathing from the ruins of a house in Amatrice — one an infant, the other a toddler in diapers. Gentle waiting hands loaded them carefully onto stretchers before they were rushed to a waiting helicopter.
Amatrice, consisting of a small town center surrounded by dozens of hamlets, draws visitors ranging from well-to-do Romans who own vacation homes to backpackers and young revelers from across Europe, all enjoying the waning days of summer. This weekend, the town was to have an exuberant annual festival in honor of the pasta dish named for it, spaghetti all’amatriciana.
Instead, survivors sat shell-shocked on cracked pavement, alternately hugging one another and sending off rapid-fire texts.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis led pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in prayer for the victims. European governments offered condolences, and President Barack Obama telephoned Italy’s president to offer thoughts and prayers, as well as any needed assistance. The Italian government mobilized troops to help with rescue efforts and quickly freed up emergency funds for disaster relief.
All Italy was transfixed by scenes of grief that at times resembled Renaissance paintings: a dust-shrouded man with his head in his hands, brothers weeping in one another’s arms, rescuers bearing a tiny blanket-wrapped corpse, a nun with a bloodied face huddled by an old stone wall.
Cultural treasures fell victim as well. Officials were assessing the damage to landmark churches, paintings and frescoes, including the cracked 4th century facade of the Basilica of St. Francis and the 15th century Church of St. Augustine, next to Amatrice’s ancient walls, the Ansa news agency reported.
Residents told of narrow escapes — and desperate efforts to save others. When the quake hit, student Alex Ciccone said, he was not in bed like most people; he was escorting home a friend who had had too much to drink.
“He saved my life,” he said of his inebriated companion.
The 21-year-old quickly joined in the initial rescue effort, groping his way through debris-choked streets.
“The world was white with dust,” he said.
Hours later, he learned two good friends were among those killed in the quake.
Emergency workers, though hampered by quake-buckled roads, rushed in earthmoving equipment and sniffer dogs to hunt for survivors. At first, before they arrived, people dug through the rubble with bare hands, listening for cries from those trapped below.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited the quake zone and promised his Cabinet would enact speedy measures to spur reconstruction.
Earlier, in a brief nationwide televised address, he pledged aid and solidarity for the victims.
“No one will be left alone — no family, no community, no neighborhood,” he said.
In Amatrice, the hospital was among the damaged buildings, so medical workers quickly moved patients outdoors, and then began treating arriving injured in the open air.
Pasquale Carducci, the hospital director, helped evacuate bedridden patients, still hooked up to their intravenous drips.
“Amatrice is finished,” he said.
By one poignant report, the missing included some who thought they had found haven in Italy. The state broadcaster RAI reported two Afghan girls, believed to be asylum-seekers, were unaccounted for.
The quake’s epicenter was relatively shallow, magnifying its destructive power. The U.S. Geological Survey put the magnitude at 6.2, while Italy’s geological observatory measured it at magnitude 6.0. The differing figures could not immediately be reconciled.
The temblor had jolted people awake in Rome, setting off car alarms and knocking books from shelves, and was felt as far away as Naples, some 200 miles away in the country’s south.
In seismically active Italy, the last large earthquake was in 2009, in the central city of L’Aquila, approximately 50 miles south of Wednesday’s quake zone. It killed more than 300 people.
In the hours after the quake, priests moved through the devastated area, seeking to provide comfort even if they were in tears themselves. One cleric told of blessing bodies pulled from the wreckage — including that of a friend.
Along once-tidy streets, the fronts of houses gaped open where their external walls had collapsed, spilling furniture and washing machines into the roadway. Rubble towered in mounds as high as houses.
As the shadows lengthened in the park on the outskirts of Amatrice, people sobbed as bodies continued to be carried out of the ruins.
One woman wailed: “This is not right.”