L'AQUILA, Italy (Reuters) - A powerful earthquake struck a huge swath of central Italy as residents slept on Monday morning, killing more than 50 people and making up to 50,000 homeless.
Most of the dead were in L'Aquila, a 13th-century mountain city about 100 km (60 miles) east of Rome, and surrounding towns and villages in the Abruzzo region.
Houses, historic churches and other buildings were demolished in the worst quake to hit Italy in nearly 30 years.
"I woke up hearing what sounded like a bomb," said Angela Palumbo, 87, said as she walked on a street in L'Aquila.
"We managed to escape with things falling all around us. Everything was shaking, furniture falling. I don't remember ever seeing anything like this in my life," she said.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni visited the area and said the death toll had surpassed 50.
Luca Spoletini, a Civil Protection Department spokesman, said the quake may have made up to 50,000 people homeless.
Luca Spoletini, a Civil Protection Department spokesman, said the quake may have made up to 50,000 people homeless. Some 26 cities and towns were seriously damaged.
In the small town of Onna alone, 10 people were killed, said a Reuters photographer who saw a mother and her infant daughter carried away in the same coffin.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi canceled a trip to Moscow and declared a national emergency, which would free up funds for aid and rebuilding. Pope Benedict said he was saying a special prayer for the victims.
Older houses and buildings made of stone, particularly in outlying villages that have not seen much restoration, collapsed like straw houses.
Hospitals appealed for help from doctors and nurses throughout Italy. The stench of gas filled some parts of the mountain towns and villages as mains ruptured.
Residents of Rome, which is rarely hit by seismic activity, were woken by the quake, which rattled furniture and swayed lights in most of central Italy. It struck shortly after 3:30 a.m. (0130 GMT) and registered between 5.8 and 6.3 magnitude.
"MY FATHER IS SURELY DEAD"
"When the quake hit, I rushed out to my father's house and opened the main door and everything had collapsed. My father is surely dead. I called for help but no-one was around," said Camillo Berardi in L'Aquila.
Rubble was strewn throughout the city of 68,000 people and nearby towns, blocking roads and hampering rescue teams.
Old women wailed and residents armed with nothing but bare hands helped firefighters and rescue workers tear through the rubble. Debris was strewn throughout the city and nearby towns, blocking roads and hampering rescue teams.
"Thousands of buildings collapsed or were damaged," said Agostino Miozzo, a Civil Protection official.
A resident in L'Aquila standing by an apartment block that had been reduced to the height of an adult said: "This building was four storeys high."
Some cars were buried by the rubble.
In another part of the city, residents tried to hush the wailing of grief to try to pinpoint the sound of a crying baby.
There were numerous reports of some the area's centuries-old Romanesque and Renaissance churches collapsing.
Part of a university residence and a hotel collapsed in L'Aquila and at least one person was still trapped.
The quake brought down the bell tower of a church in the center of L'Aquila. Bridges and highways in the mountainous area were closed as a precaution.
The quake was the latest and strongest in a series to hit the L'Aquila area on Sunday and Monday. Earthquakes can be particularly dangerous in parts of Italy because so many buildings are centuries-old.
About 2,700 people died in an earthquake in the south in 1980.
(Writing by Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Reuters Rome bureau; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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