VISSO (Italy) • Italy was counting the cost after two major earthquakes forced thousands to flee their homes in terror but "miraculously" did not cause any fatalities.
Two months after a quake left nearly 300 dead in the country's tremor-prone central spine, the two powerful shocks ripped through the mountainous, sparsely populated region on Wednesday evening. The epicentres were near the village of Visso, located on the edge of the region of Marche close to the border with Umbria.
They struck an area just to the north of Amatrice, the mountain town which was partially razed by the August quake and suffered the bulk of the fatalities.
Despite numerous building collapses, no deaths had been reported by midday yesterday, more than 17 hours after the first of the 5.5- and 6.1-magnitude tremors, both of which were felt in Rome, some 175km away from the epicentres.
More than 100 aftershocks rattled the area through the night.
"Given the strength of the shocks, the absence of any deaths or serious injuries, which we hope will be confirmed, is miraculous," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said. The national civil protection agency described the damage as "very significant", but said they were not aware of anyone trapped under rubble.
A clean-up operation began and hundreds of families were unsure where they would be living for the foreseeable future.
Visso's mayor Giuliano Pazzaglini said two-thirds of the buildings in his village had been left unusable. Its historic centre was taped off yesterday morning.
Bulldozers were working to clear one of the village's main access roads, which was blocked by the collapsed facade of a building. The village church was partially destroyed, its bell tower still standing but bearing large fissures.
Mr Marco Rinaldi, mayor of the village of Ussita, situated just above 600m and close to the epicentres of the quakes, described "apocalyptic" scenes. "People were in the streets screaming. Many houses have collapsed. Our town is finished," he said. "I've felt a lot of earthquakes but that was the strongest I've ever felt. Fortunately, everyone had already left their homes after the first quake so I don't think anyone was hurt."
"It's never-ending. These damned earthquakes won't leave us alone!" said restaurateur Linda Cappa as she distributed pastries, hot coffee and juice to the traumatised residents of Ussita in the early hours of the morning.
Even in Rome, some people took to the streets as a precautionary measure, underlining lingering jitters after the summer disaster.
Across the region, hospitals, a university residence, a retirement home and a prison had to be evacuated. A top-flight football match was suspended after the first shock and schools were closed yesterday across the region to allow structural safety checks to be carried out.
Italy's national geophysics institute said the latest quakes were linked to the August one, which was followed by thousands of aftershocks, some of them very strong.