A strong earthquake in central Italy reduced three towns to rubble as people slept early Wednesday, killing at least 73 people and injuring hundreds more as rescue crews raced to dig out survivors with bulldozers and their bare hands.
The toll was likely to rise as crews reached homes in more remote hamlets where the scenes were apocalyptic "like Dante's Inferno," according to one witness. Complicating matters was that the area is a popular vacation spot in summer, with populations swelling, making the number of people in the area at the time difficult to estimate.
"The town isn't here anymore," said Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of Amatrice. "I believe the toll will rise."
The magnitude 6 quake struck at 3:36 a.m. [0136 GMT] and was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, including Rome, where residents woke to a long swaying followed by aftershocks. The temblor shook the Lazio region and Umbria and Le Marche on the Adriatic coast.
Premier Matteo Renzi planned to head to the zone later Wednesday and promised the area, which has suffered quakes many times before: "No family, no city, no hamlet will be left behind."
The hardest-hit towns were the tiny towns of Amatrice and Accumoli near Rieti, some 100 kilometers [62 miles] northeast of Rome, and Pescara del Tronto some 25 kilometers further east. Italy's civil protection agency, which was coordinating the rescue, said the provisional toll was 73 dead, several hundred injured and thousands in need of temporary housing, though it stressed the numbers were fluid.
The center of Amatrice was devastated, with entire blocks of buildings razed and the air thick with dust and smelling strongly of gas. Amatrice, birthplace of the famed spaghetti all'amatriciana bacon-tomato pasta sauce, is made up of 69 hamlets that rescue teams were working to reach.
Rocks and metal tumbled onto the streets of the city center and dazed residents huddled in piazzas as more than 40 aftershocks jolted the region into the early morning hours, some as strong as 5.1.