At least 70 people are now reported to have died and many more are missing after a powerful earthquake struck a cluster of towns and villages in mountainous central Italy this morning, reducing homes and buildings to rubble and damaging roads and other infrastructure.
The 6.2-magnitude quake struck at 3.36am while many people in the towns of Amatrice, Accumoli and other communities were asleep.
Tremors were felt in Rome, located 150km to the southwest, according to authorities and witnesses.
Half the town is gone– Sergio Pirozzi, mayor of Amatrice, Italy
Rescue workers and townspeople struggled to save those trapped under dozens of collapsed buildings in communities closest to the quake’s epicentre in a remote area straddling the regions of Umbria, Marche and Lazio.
Some officials expect the death toll to rise.
As of midday, emergency services were still trying to reach some remote villages.
"Half the town is gone," said Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of the town of Amatrice, which suffered some of the worst damage and where 17 deaths have been reported, according to the BBC.
"The roads in and out of town are cut off," he added. "There are people under the rubble. There’s been a landslide and a bridge might collapse.
"There are tens of victims, so many under the rubble. We’re preparing a place for the bodies."
In Rome today Pope Francis called off a scheduled speech to lead prayers for the victims.
"On hearing the news of the earthquake that has struck central Italy and which has devastated many areas and left many wounded, I cannot fail to express my heartfelt sorrow and spiritual closeness to all those present in the zones afflicted," Francis said, reports Catholic News Agency.
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is due to visit the region later today.
Located in an active seismic zone, Italy is no stranger to deadly quakes. The L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 killed 295 people, according to the BBC, while 3,000 died in the 6.5-magnitude Irpinia quake in 1980.
Image: A view of extensive damage in the Italian town of Pescara del Tronto, hit by today’s 6.2-magnitude earthquake (Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)