ACCUMOLI, Italy – At least 159 people have died following a powerful earthquake that hit central Italy early on Wednesday, the country’s civil protection agency says.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi spoke Wednesday evening in the provincial capital of Rieti after visiting rescue crews and survivors in the hard-hit town of Amatrice and flying over other demolished towns in nearby Le Marche region.
Renzi said 34 people died in Le Marche, the rest from the other towns. He also says the identification of quake bodies was a difficult process.
The quake struck towns and villages in the mountainous heart of the country, which was making the rescue operation more difficult, said Italy’s civil protection department spokeswoman Immacolata Postiglione.
Wide cracks appeared like open wounds on the buildings that were still standing.
Residents sifted through the rubble with their bare hands before emergency services arrived with earth-moving equipment and sniffer dogs.
The quake hit during the summer when the populations of the communities in the area, normally low during the rest of the year, are swelled by vacationers.
“Three quarters of the town is not there anymore,” Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi told state broadcaster RAI. “The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there.”
Pirozzi, wearing a blue sweatshirt with “Amatrice” on it, told The Associated Press he believed the death toll will rise. So far, 17 deaths have been confirmed in Amatrice alone.
A Reuters reporter said the town’s hospital had been badly damaged by the quake, with patients moved into the streets. RAI reported that two Afghan girls, believed to be asylum-seekers, were also missing in the town.
The earthquake caused damage to towns in three regions – Umbria, Lazio and Marche.
WATCH: Where did the earthquake happen in Italy?
The U.S. Geological Survey, which measured the quake at 6.2 magnitude, said it struck near the Umbrian city of Norcia, while Italy’s earthquake institute INGV registered it at 6.0 and put the epicenter further south, closer to Accumoli and Amatrice.
The damage was made more severe because the epicenter was at a relatively shallow 4 km below the surface of the earth.
Residents of Rome were woken by the tremors, which rattled furniture, swayed lights and set off car alarms in most of central Italy.
“It was so strong. It seemed the bed was walking across the room by itself with us on it,” Lina Mercantini of Ceselli, Umbria, about 75 km away from the hardest hit area, told Reuters.
Olga Urbani, in the nearby town of Scheggino, said: “Dear God it was awful. The walls creaked and all the books fell off the shelves.”
INGV reported 60 aftershocks in the four hours following the initial quake, the strongest measuring 5.5.
Italy sits on two fault lines, making it one of the most seismically active countries in Europe.
The last major earthquake to hit the country struck the central city of L’Aquila in 2009, killing more than 300 people.
The most deadly since the start of the 20th century came in 1908, when an earthquake followed by a tsunami killed an estimated 80,000 people in the southern regions of Reggio Calabria and Sicily.
European leaders offer support
The European Union’s top crisis management official said Italy has requested satellite images of earthquake-hit parts of the country as Rome tries to establish the scope of the damage.
Commissioner Christos Stylianides said Wednesday that the EU emergency response centre is in contact with Italian civil protection authorities to see what additional help might be required.
Stylianides conveyed the EU’s condolences and expressed solidarity with Italy, saying that its “thoughts are also with the first responders and all those involved in the rescue operations.”
French President Francois Hollande is offering Italy “all the help that might be necessary” after the deadly earthquake in Umbria.
Calling it a “terrible tragedy” in a statement after a special security meeting Wednesday, Hollande offered the support of “all the French people.” He didn’t elaborate on what help France is offering.
German leaders have offered condolences and assistance to Italy following the devastating earthquake.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that “if it is wanted, we are of course ready to provide support.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed “the deep sympathy of the German people” in a message Wednesday to Italian Premier Matteo Renzi. She wrote that “the pictures of the devastation are shocking.”
Pope Francis also tweeted condolences, stating “I express my sorrow to all those present in the places affected by the earthquake.”