Early Wednesday morning, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake rattled central Italy, crumbling thousands of homes and killing dozens in a death toll that mounted for hours after rescuers began digging by hand through ruined towns and villages.
At least 73 people were reported killed by Italian authorities Wednesday, with untold more missing in the rubble. Photographs from the scene showed survivors wrapped in blankets, the streets piled high with debris and rescuers pulling dusty survivors from the wreckage. One photo showed the body of a child, wrapped in pink cloth, lying on a bench.
But the earthquake, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimated was centered about 100 miles northeast of Rome, was hardly the first earthquake to wreak havoc across a region long familiar with seismic catastrophe.
Italy sits along one of three major earthquake belts across the globe, given the nearby border of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, and the Apennine mountain range that runs the length of country’s boot straddles its own fault system surrounded by tributaries of smaller faults.
That fault system has slowly pulled down the mountain range’s highest peaks, the BBC reported, also widening the Tyrrhenian Basin that laps at Italy’s western coast.
Early reports compared Wednesday’s quake to a similarly strong one in 2009 that killed about 300 people in the nearby region of Abruzzo, radiating from L’Aquila about 54 miles south. Another 6.1-magnitude quake in 1997 struck Umbria and Marche, killing 11 and destroying the frescos inside the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi along with its inner vaulted roof. Since 1950, the country has had at least seven major earthquakes with magnitudes of 6.0 or higher. For comparison, California — widely known for its quake-prone San Andreas fault, has seen at least 30.
Wednesday’s quake, which sent shocks rippling through Venice after it struck past 3:30 a.m., also spurred more convulsions that could be felt for hours after the major quake. CNN reporter Barbie Nadeau reported aftershocks throughout the morning even as rescue crews began to search the ruins for human life: “The earth is still moving, we keep feeling tremor after tremor.”
Those tremors hindered those sifting through the stone remains of several buildings for the trapped or killed. The mayor of Accumoli, one of the towns struck by the quake, told RAI News 24 that rescue crews were “digging, digging… hoping to find someone alive.”
His town’s newest buildings were hit the hardest, Stefano Petrucci said, but noted that the older buildings had “suffered less damage.”
Another town mayor, Sergio Pirozzi of Amatrice, told the network that the devastation had been overwhelming. “The town isn’t here anymore,” he said.
The destruction was only magnified by the quake’s shallow depth, which the USGS estimated at 6.2 miles underground. An unrelated 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Myanmar embedded more than 50 miles into the earth’s crust later Wednesday, caused far less damage according to news reports.