TOWNS and villages in central Italy have been reduced to rubble as the result of a 6.2 Magnitude earthquake which struck in the early hours on Wednesday. Government officials on Thursday morning said that at least 274 people had been killed. That figure was expected to rise as search-and-rescue efforts continued.
Many of the towns affected by the earthquake are small holiday villages containing older buildings that do not have the safety features of modern structures.
A national emergency has been declared in Italy, and rescue efforts are being led by country’s departments of civil defence and civil protection, who are co-ordinating local fire, police, and medical teams.
The hospital at Amatrice — the town near the epicentre of the quake — was rendered unusable. Patients have been evacuated to the hospital in nearby Rieti.
Aftershocks are making rescue attempts dangerous. Journalists and non-essential personnel have been asked to leave.
Pope Francis cancelled his weekly address at the general audience in St Peter’s Square, and instead led the gathered faithful in prayer.
“I had prepared the Catechesis for today, as for all Wednesdays during this Year of Mercy, focusing on the closeness of Jesus,” the Pope said. “However, on hearing the news of the earthquake that struck central Italy, which has devastated entire areas and left many wounded, I cannot fail to express my heartfelt sorrow and spiritual closeness to all those present in the zones affected.
“I also express my condolences to those who have lost loved ones, and my spiritual support to those who are anxious and afraid. Hearing the Mayor of Amatrice say that the town no longer exists, and learning that there are children among the dead, I am deeply saddened.
“For this reason, I want to assure all the people of Accumoli, Amatrice, and beyond, in the dioceses of Rieti, Ascoli Piceno, and all the people of Lazio, Umbria, and le Marche, of the prayer and close solidarity of the entire Church who in these moments extends her maternal love.
“We, too, present in this square offer you our embrace.”
On Wednesday evening, the Pope sent a team of firefighters and gendarmarie from Vatican City state to assist the search workers and to help rescued people.
The clock tower is all that remains of one of the churches in Amatrice, its hands stuck at 3.37, the time that the earthquake struck early on Wednesday.
“I don’t know what to say. We are living this immense tragedy,” the Revd Savino D’Amelio, a parish priest in Amatrice, told the Associated Press (AP) news agency. “We are only hoping there will be the least number of victims possible and that we all have the courage to move on.”
Another priest, the Revd Fabio Gammarota, from a neighbouring parish, told AP that he had blessed seven bodies extracted from the rubble in the town. “One was a friend of mine,” he said.
The Bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Ascoli Piceno, the Rt Revd Giovanni D’Ercole, told Sky News that he has used his bare hands to dig through the rubble at the church in Pescara del Tronto to find the cross. “It will give hope and strength to the community,” he said. “Aid workers helped. Everything was destroyed, but not the cross. We will keep it as a symbol of hope.”
Speaking later to Vatican Radio, Bishop D’Ercole said he remained in the town until midnight, before returning to his home in Ascoli to find people sleeping outside, fearing aftershocks.
He said that the victims of the earthquake had a repeated plea: “Don’t abandon us, because we now have nothing left.”
The Suffragan Bishop of the Anglican Diocese in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, interrupted his holiday in Canada to make contact with Anglican clergy in Italy. “I was able to contact Archdeacon Vickie Simms, as well as Canon Jonathan Boardman in Rome, Fr William Lister in Florence, and Mother Teodora in Perugia,” he said on his blog. “Thankfully, it seems that no members of our communities in the areas hit by the quake have been injured or killed; but, as we know, the final numbers of deaths and injured has yet to be known.”
He said that the church in Pescara, one of the affected areas, had a congregation mostly of Nigerian origin. They had been using social media to report their safety, Bishop David said.
The choir from St Mary’s, Maldon, Essex, had been visiting Cascia, in south west Umbria, at the time of the earthquake. They led a sung evensong at the Shrine of Santa Rita, which Fr Boardman dedicated to the victims. Prayers were also said for the victims and the devastated communities by Italian-speaking Anglicans Perugia, led by Mother Teodora.
“Pray that the Lord will grant rest to those who perished, and comfort to those who were spared,” Bishop Hamid said. “May God strengthen all efforts to rescue those still trapped and bless those who bring help and relief.”
The chairman of the Anglican Consultative Council, Archbishop Paul Kwong, Primate of Hong Kong, has called on Anglicans to pray for the victims. He has written letters of support to the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, and also the Archbishop of Myanmar, Stephen Than Myint Oo – where a 6.8 Magnitude earthquake on Wednesday afternoon resulted in the deaths of four people – to convey condolences and “to assure the victims of the Anglican Communion’s solicitude,” his spokesman said.
On Thursday afternoon, a 4.2-magnitude aftershock struck the affected area, causing further damage.