Magnitude 6.2 earthquake destroys towns in central Italy, killing at least 159

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JUDY WOODRUFF:  In today’s early morning hours, Italy’s countryside was jolted awake by an earthquake, striking just beneath the surface and wreaking terrible havoc.  The official number of deaths has reached 159, but that number is expected to grow.

An army of rescue workers quickly descended on three small Italian towns that were leveled in the quake.  They were able to pull some people from the rubble, but others remain trapped.

GIANCARLO, Earthquake Survivor (through translator):  I heard people asking for help, people calling out, asking for help, but in this condition, what could I do?  I have been to the center, and it’s all in rubble.

AGOSTINO SEVERO, Earthquake Survivor (through translator):  We came out to the piazza, and it looked like Dante’s Inferno, people crying for help, help.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit in the middle of the night, just after 3:30 a.m.  It was felt across Central Italy, but the tiny towns of Amatrice, Accumoli, and Pescara del Tronto were hardest-hit.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi arrived in Amatrice late today after promising the area his full support.

MATTEO RENZI, Prime Minister, Italy (through translator):  This is a time when we’re allowed to shed tears.  For the faithful, it is a moment to say a prayer.  For everyone, it is a moment of respect and pain.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  It’s slow going for the rescue workers who are combing the wreckage for survivors, oftentimes using only their hands.

ANDREA GENTILI, Department of Civil Protection (through translator):  We need chain saws, shears to cut iron bars, and jacks to remove beams.  Everything.  We need everything.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The hard work paid off in Accumoli, where a 65-year-old man was pulled out of the rubble after nine hours.  Applause followed the man as he was loaded into an ambulance.

We get an on-the-scene report now from special correspondent Christopher Livesay, who is in Amatrice, Italy.  We spoke just a short time ago.

Chris Livesay, welcome.

First of all, you have been there all day long.  What are you seeing?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  Well, I’m seeing what looks like the aftermath of a war zone.  The imagery all around me is much more similar to what we’re used to seeing come out of places like Aleppo and Syria, not the idyllic hillside town of Amatrice.

Normally, this is a place where tourists go to escape the heat during the summer, especially the month of August, which in Italy is the national month of vacations.  So a town of normally 2,000 people had twice the population this time of year, only increasing the amount of injuries and fatalities, unfortunately.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  When people think of Italy, of course they think of history.  Just how widespread was the damage?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  The damage stretches all the way from the west coast to the east coast.  I mean, if you want a sense of history and culture, just look behind me at the Church of St. Augustine.  It dates back to the 14th century.

Half of it is collapsed right before your eyes.  Only the belfry is really standing.  And that’s rather indicative of the damage that stretches all across Central Italy, not just here in the region of Lazio around Rome, but also the nearby region of Umbria, which has a number of artistic heritage sites.

We’re talking not just in that region, but all across Central Italy, buildings that range from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  There’s going to be all types of loss, not just of life, but, of course, that is the most important thing that everyone is rushing to save.  People all around me, volunteers and professionals likewise, are working around the clock to see if there are any survivors still underneath this rubble.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Do they have the resources they need, Chris, to get this done?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  They seem to have all the resources they need, especially in terms of manpower.  I have been overwhelmed by the amount of volunteers and other rescue agencies from firefighters to ambulance drivers to civil protection agents, you name it.  Even the military is chipping in at this point.  They’re all working around the clock to help people.

You have tents.  You have cots that have been set up in parks.  There’s a sports center that has been converted into a makeshift dormitory.  So, just in this town of Amatrice, there are temporary beds set up for hundreds of people, and that’s the case all across Italy right now.  Thousands of temporary beds and housing have been set up.

So the people do appear to have all the help they need.  What they have working against them is perhaps the very thing that makes this part of Italy so picturesque, and that’s the fact that these are small hilltop towns with twisting and winding roads.

Those roads were not made for heavy vehicles, lots of ambulances, one after another.  They’re having to negotiate the road.  Oftentimes, there’s just not enough space for everyone to go in and out of these place, so they’re relying heavily on helicopters to air evac people into nearby hospital, but also hospitals as far afield as Rome, which is almost 100 miles from here.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Chris Livesay in Amatrice, thank you.

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