- guardian.co.uk, Sunday 20 May 2012 20.06 BST
“Right now our absolute priority is for people to spend the night in acceptable conditions,” said civil protection chief Franco Gabrielli. With storms forecast for the area, the Italian government was due to meet on Tuesday to consider declaring a state of emergency.
The 6.0 magnitude earthquake, which struck the Emilia-Romagna region 3.2 miles below ground at 4.04am, was felt across northern Italy, from Liguria to the Veneto, and was described by one official as the worst in the area since the 1300s. The last serious earthquake to strike Italy was the 6.3 scale shock in L’Aquila in 2009 which killed nearly 300.
“There’s nothing to be done,” said Valeria Balboni, standing amid shattered glass in her family’s bathroom fittings factory near Sant’Agostino. “We’re going to have to close, like so many of the others.”
The earthquake left major towns such as Bologna unscathed but wrought havoc in small towns and villages dotting the countryside between Bologna, Ferrara and Modena.
In San Felice sul Panaro, the tops of several towers of a 14th-century castle collapsed while fresco-filled churches in the town were seriously damaged.
“We have practically lost all our artistic patrimony,” said mayor Alberto Silvestri.
In Finale Emilia, the historic Palazzo dei Veneziani partly collapsed and 11 residents survived after knocking down a wall to escape.
The Castello delle Rocche in the town was also damaged while a clock tower was split down the middle, with one side disintegrating into rubble before the remaining side collapsed during an aftershock.
“A thousand years of history disappears just like that,” said mayor Fernando Ferioli.
In the tiny hamlet of Buoncompra, 700 residents were evacuated to a makeshift emergency centre on the outskirts of town, overlooking the destroyed church of San Martino.
Italy’s cultural ministry said: “After an initial survey, damage to cultural patrimony appears significant.”
Italy’s cultural ministry said.
As a precaution, 500 prisoners were evacuated from a prison in Ferrara.
Four night shift workers were killed at three different factories which collapsed, including Gerardo Cesaro, 57, one of 10 employees working at Tecopress, an aluminium car parts maker in Sant’Agostino. “We think everyone else got out of the factory, but he didn’t make it out in time,” the firm’s human resource director, Adriano Orlandini, said after rescuers located Cesaro’s body amid the rubble of the 45-year-old factory.
Two of the other fatalities were workers at a nearby ceramics factory where staff drove up to the gates with their families on Sunday to peer at the mountain of twisted blue steel where the factory had stood. “He wasn’t supposed to be there,” the mother of one of the victims told Reuters. “He changed shifts with a friend who wanted to go to the beach.”
A fourth man, a Moroccan, died when he was hit by a falling beam at a plastics factory in Ponte Rodoni di Bondeno.
A woman aged 106 was also killed in her bed at her rural house by a falling beam.
Cheese producers said 300,000 wheels of grana and parmesan cheese had been lost as warehouses collapsed, while farmers were fighting to save livestock trapped in collapsed barns.
In Finale Emilia, a five-year-old girl was pulled out of a collapsed building two hours after the quake when rescuers were telephoned by a doctor in New York.
The girl’s mother, who had been unable to get through to emergency services, had managed to call the doctor for help.
On Sunday, stunned and tired residents in Finale Emilia who had been outside their homes since 4am walked up and down the rubble-strewn city centre, many running and crying in the streets as aftershocks struck, including one shortly after 3pm which measured 5.1.
“In the middle, get in the middle,” one woman yelled to people on the pavements as a deep rumble shook the ground, sending bricks and cornices tumbling off a number of unstable old buildings.
Describing the earthquake, resident Franca Zucchi said she was thrown out of bed and saw her chandelier swinging from wall to wall. “We all ran out into the streets in our pyjamas and underwear,” Zucchi said. “I’ve never felt anything like it.”
Pope Benedict prayed for victims in his Sunday address and prime minister Mario Monti decided to cut short his trip to Chicago for the Nato summit in order to oversee the earthquake relief operation and follow the investigation into a bombing in Brindisi on Saturday which killed a schoolgirl.