L'AQUILA, Italy - A powerful earthquake in mountainous central Italy knocked down whole blocks of buildings early Monday as residents slept, killing more than 100 people in the country's deadliest quake in nearly three decades. Tens of thousands were homeless and 1,500 were injured.
Civil protection official Roberto Forina said late Monday that authorities have counted more than 100 bodies. But he could not confirm a report by the ANSA news agency that the death toll had reached 150. The Corriere Della Sera newspaper is reporting that more than 250 people are missing.
The quake knocked down whole blocks of buildings the medieval city of L'Aquila and the surrounding area early Monday as residents slept. It is Italy's deadliest quake in nearly three decades.
Ambulances screamed through L'Aquila as firefighters with dogs and a crane worked feverishly to reach people trapped in fallen buildings, including a university dormitory where half a dozen students were believed still inside.
Outside the half-collapsed building, part of the University of L'Aquila, tearful young people huddled together, wrapped in blankets, some still in their slippers after being roused from sleep by the quake. Dozens managed to escape as the dorm walls fell around them but hours after the quake, a body of a male student was pulled from the rubble.
"We managed to come down with other students but we had to sneak through a hole in the stairs as the whole floor came down," said student Luigi Alfonsi, 22. "I was in bed - it was like it would never end as I heard pieces of the building collapse around me."
"There was water gushing out of broken water pipes, and the corridor which led to the stairs was partially blocked when a piece of the wall came down," Alfonsi, his eyes filling with tears and his hands trembling, told The Associated Press.
Some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, officials said. L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente said about 100,000 people were homeless. It was not clear if the mayor's estimate included surrounding towns.
The quake has also taken a severe toll on the city's prized architectural heritage. L'Aquila was built as a mountain stronghold during the Middle Ages and has many prized Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings.
Damage to monuments was reported as far as Rome, where cracks appeared at the thermal baths built in the 3rd century by the emperor Caracalla, Culture Ministry official Giuseppe Proietti said. The damage was not serious, and other Roman monuments suffered no consequences, he said.
Parts of many of the ancient churches and castles in and around L'Aquila have collapsed. Centuries-old churches in many isolated villages in the area are believed partly collapsed, and damage to ancient monuments has been reported as far as Rome.
L'Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, was near the epicenter about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of Rome. It is a quake-prone region that has had at least nine smaller jolts since the beginning of April. The quake struck at 3:32 a.m. The U.S. Geological Survey said the big quake was magnitude 6.3, but Italy's National Institute of Geophysics put it at 5.8 and more than a dozen aftershocks followed.
Italy's national police chief Antonio Manganelli said that several arrests have been made for looting. He said those picked up were "caught while they were stealing from abandoned houses. It's sad."
The quake hit 26 towns and cities around L'Aquila, which lies in a valley surrounded by the Apennine mountains. Castelnuovo, a hamlet of about 300 people 15 miles (25 kilometers) southeast of L'Aquila, appeared hard hit, and five were confirmed dead there. Another small town, Onno, was almost leveled.
"A few houses have remained standing, but just a few," Stefania Pezzopane, provincial president of L'Aquila, told Corriere della Sera. Rescue workers in Onna, population about 250, said the town was virtually deserted as survivors sought shelter elsewhere.
The four-star, 133-room Hotel Duca degli Abruzzi in L'Aquila's historic center was heavily damaged but still standing and it was not known if there were any casualties, said Ornella De Luca of the national civil protection agency in Rome. "The information is very fragmentary," she said.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi declared a state of emergency, freeing up federal funds to deal with the disaster, and canceled a visit to Russia so he could deal with the crisis.
Condolences poured in from around the world, including from President Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI and Abdullah Gul, president of quake-prone Turkey.
Slabs of walls, twisted steel supports, furniture and wire fences were strewn about the streets of L'Aquila, and gray dust carpeted sidewalks, cars and residents.