A magnitude 6.6 earthquake has struck central Italy, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) says, causing the collapse of buildings and historic churches.
The USGS said the quake was centred 68 kilometres east-southeast of Perugia at a depth of 1.5 kilometres.
Residents already rattled by a constant trembling of the earth rushed into piazzas and streets after being roused from bed by the 7:40am (local time) quake.
Italy’s Civil Protection Department said while no deaths had been reported so far, a number of people had been injured, including one person in a serious condition, and several towns devastated.
— Amichai Stein (@AmichaiStein1) October 30, 2016
The ancient city of Norcia appeared to be one of the locations hardest-hit by the quake.
Television images showed nuns rushing out of their church and into the town’s main piazza as the clock tower appeared about to crumble.
“It’s as if the whole city fell down,” Norcia city assessor Guiseppina Perla told the ANSA news agency.
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Norcia’s historic Basilica of St Benedict was among the buildings destroyed.
The Monks of Norcia tweeted images of the damage and said people were trapped in the town’s main square, with fears nearby buildings might collapse.
“Trucks are coming to clear a path to safety,” the monks tweeted.
It was felt as far north as Bolzano, near the border with Austria and as far south as the Puglia region at the southern tip of the Italian peninsula and was felt strongly in the capital Rome.
Marco Rinaldi, Mayor of quake-hit Ussita, north of Norcia, said a huge cloud of smoke erupted from the crumbled buildings.
“It’s a disaster, a disaster,” he told the ANSA news agency.
“I was sleeping in the car and I saw hell.”
The town of Arquata del Tronto, east of Norcia, which was devastated by earthquakes two months ago that killed nearly 300 people and levelled several small towns, suffered fresh damage.
“Everything came down,” Mayor Aleandro Petrucci said.
The earthquake followed a series of tremors to strike the country in the past five days.
A magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck east of the city on Wednesday, the second of the evening whose tremors were felt as far away as the capital Rome.
Monks are OK, searching for any who may need last rites. #Terremoto
— The Monks of Norcia (@monksofnorcia) October 30, 2016
Aftershocks expected to hamper rescue efforts: expert
Geoscience Australia seismologist Hugh Glanville told the ABC that at a depth of 1.5 kilometres, the earthquake was very shallow and had the potential to cause anything nearby to be catastrophically damaged.
A shallow earthquake can be a lot more severe than a deep one, Mr Glanville said.
“There is much higher acceleration that the buildings are put under strain with,” he said.
“If it’s a deep earthquake at 10, 20 or even 30 kilometres, the seismic waves have to travel through more earth before they reach the surface, but at such a shallow depth there is a lot less to dampen the waves effect on the buildings.”
Mr Glanville said there was a remote chance of another earthquake of a similar or stronger magnitude striking soon, but that many aftershocks were expected to strike the area, causing difficulty for rescue teams.
— GabrieleMastellarini (@mastellarini) October 30, 2016