Rescuers in desperate search for survivors as Italy quake toll hits 247

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SALETTA, Italy — Rescuers are combing through mountains of rubble in central Italy for a second day Thursday, hoping to find more survivors following a devastating earthquake that has claimed at least 247 lives.

The 6.2-magnitude quake that struck near the town of Amatrice northeast of Rome early Wednesday has reduced entire villages to rubble, blocking off narrow streets in ancient towns and making the rescue operation difficult.

With heavy lifting equipment just starting to reach isolated villages and towns that were cut off by landslides and building debris, people used tractors, farm equipment and simple hand tools to break through what was left of old stone villas.

“Many cases have shown in the past that even after two days, people can be rescued alive,” said Luigi D’Angelo from Italy’s Civil Protection Department. “So we want to continue.”

CNN correspondent Frederik Pleitgen saw machinery moving in through the narrow lanes and rescuers using sniffer dogs to help find more bodies.

But crews were also using sound detectors, hoping to find more survivors.

“They know right now it’s a race against time. They believe it’s about 72 hours those people would be able to survive,” he said.

“In most cases, unfortunately, the only thing they’re able to retrieve is their bodies and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen the death toll rise so much overnight.”

The rescuers, which include foreign crews, are also working through aftershocks — even one as powerful as a magnitude 5.5.

Little girl rescued

After mostly pulling bodies from the rubble, rescue crews in Pescara del Tronto were overjoyed to hear what sounded like the cries of a survivor.

“Quiet! Quiet” they said, getting closer to the source of sound.

The scene was captured on video by CNN affiliate Sky TG24.

A firefighter clawed at the debris, trying to get to a young girl.

“Come on… Come on. Slowly, slowly. Mind her head,” they say to one another as onlookers applaud in support.

Suddenly there was a foot, a leg, and then the other leg.

The young girl, later identified as 10-year-old Giorgia, was finally pulled out with great care to a rousing cheer. “She’s alive!” a witness joyously cries.

No happy stories here

But Giorgia’s survival is sadly an anomaly so far in the massive rescue operation, which involves more than 5,400 rescuers from Italy’s Civil Protection agency, and many more from outside groups.

In Saletta, a town of just 20 homes less than a mile from the quake’s epicenter, an eerie quiet now permeates.

“We saw unfortunately only bodies pulled out,” CNN contributor Barbie Nadeau said from the village, where 22 people were killed.

“We didn’t see any happy stories here,” she added.

Nadeau said the last known body had been pulled from the debris, that of an elderly woman whose son had been keeping vigil at the rubble of what was once their home.

He wailed in agony as they took his mother’s body away in an ambulance.

The settlement now looks like a ghost town, with just a few residents trickling back to where their homes once stood. Most fled as strong aftershocks threatened even more destruction, she said.

Nadeau and her crew narrowly escaped injury when a home collapsed behind her in Saletta as she did a Facebook Live session Wednesday.

More than 1,000 people have been displaced by the quake, and Italy’s Civil Protection agency said no residents were allowed to sleep in the devastated town of Amatrice on Wednesday night.

Some 264 of the wounded have been hospitalized.

‘Italy knows what to do’

The death toll was expected to rise as rescue teams worked through the rubble, with regular aftershocks posing a continuing threat.

“Right now we feel terrible pain,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said after touring some of the affected areas. “Italy is a family that has been hit and struck, but we are not going to be stopped.”

Addressing the nation Wednesday, Renzi vowed to spare no effort in the critical window following the quake when lives could still be saved.

“In difficult times, Italy knows what to do,” he said.

Amatrice ‘is no more,’ says mayor

Italy is no stranger to deadly quakes.

In May 2012, a pair of earthquakes killed dozens of people in northern Italy, while in April 2009, a magnitude-6.3 earthquake hit in the Aquila region of central Italy, killing 295. The earthquake Wednesday struck an area close to the 2009 earthquake.

The towns at the epicenter of the quake — Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto — are scenes of devastation, with what were once charming three-story buildings pancaked by the disaster.

The Civil Protection agency said of the people killed, 195 were in the Rieti region — 184 in the village of Amatrice and 11 in the nearby village of Accumoli. In Arquata del Tronto, which includes Pescara del Tronto, 46 were killed.

Much of the houses in the area — unreinforced brick or concrete frame buildings — were vulnerable to earthquakes, according to the US Geological Survey, and offered little resistance to the powerful temblor.

“The town is no more,” Amatrice Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told Rai.

The towns, situated amid remote, mountainous terrain, are particularly popular in the summer with tourists seeking a scenic getaway from the heat of the city.

Red Cross spokesman Tommaso della Longa said the fluctuating population during the vacation season made it hard to know exactly how many people might be trapped in the debris.

Amatrice, known for its traditional all’amatriciana pasta sauce, had been gearing up to hold a festival celebrating the pork jowl, chili and pecorino recipe this weekend, with many visitors expected.