SANT’ AGOSTINO, Italy: A strong earthquake killed four people, injured dozens and damaged churches, towers and a mediaeval castle early on Sunday, waking terrified citizens across northern Italy and sending thousands running into the streets.
The quake, which the US Geological Survey recorded at magnitude 6.0, struck at 4:04 a.m. (0204 GMT) and was followed by a series of jolting aftershocks.
“I am 83 and I have never felt anything like this,” said Lina Gardenghi, a resident of Bondeno.
The epicenter of the quake, the strongest to hit Italy in three years, was in the plains near Modena in the Emilia-Romagna region of the Po river valley, and the tremor was felt as far west as Liguria, bordering France, and the Friuli region bordering Slovenia.
The quake seriously damaged many historic churches and other buildings, adding up to the greatest loss to Italy’s artistic patrimony since an earthquake in 1997 damaged the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, whose ceiling collapsed.
The massive, imposing 14th century Estense Castle, the symbol of the town of San Felice Sul Panaro and its most important building, was severely damaged.
The tops of several of the smaller towers collapsed and there were fears that the main tower, weakened by cracks, could tumble down. Three of the town’s churches were severely hit, damaging centuries-old frescoes and other works of art.
“We have practically lost all our artistic patrimony,” said Alberto Silvestri, mayor of San Felice Sul Panaro. “Churches and towers collapsed. The theater is still standing but has cracks.”
The quake left a gaping hole and gashes in the side of the Sant’ Agostino’s Renaissance style town hall, which officials said was in danger of total collapse. The town’s streets were strewn with rubble and the stench of gas filled the town and raised fears of explosions.
In Bondeno, a Moroccan man working a night shift in a polyester factory died when he was hit by falling debris.
A 57-year-old Italian was killed when part of an ironworks in Sant’ Agostino collapsed, and two men were killed in the same town when part of a ceramics factory collapsed. “He wasn’t supposed to be there. He changed shifts with a friend who wanted to go to the beach,” the mother of one of the victims said.
Pope Benedict prayed for the victims in his Sunday address at the Vatican.
A series of strong aftershocks hit the area, the most violent having a magnitude of 5.1. Mayors ordered residents to stay outdoors pending checks by structural engineers and began preparations to house those who could not return to their homes.
Two other people, one of them a German woman, were reported to have died after suffering heart attacks because of the quake, and several dozen people suffered minor injuries.
The quake was centerd 22 miles (35 km) north-northwest of Bologna at a relatively shallow depth of 6.3 miles (10 km), the US Geological Survey said.
The last major quake to hit Italy was a 6.3 magnitude quake in the central city of L’Aquila in 2009, which killed nearly 300 people.
After that quake, then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi moved a G8 meeting that was to have been held in Sardinia to near L’Aquila in a show of solidarity with the victims.