MONTEREALE, Italy: Earthquakes brought an icy chill of terror to snowbound central Italy on Wednesday as four powerful shocks reverberated through an area still recovering from deadly tremors last year.
The quakes, all measuring more than five magnitude, struck in the space of four hours in an area close to Amatrice, the mountain town devastated by an August earthquake that left nearly 300 people dead.
There were no reports of casualties on Wednesday but there were fears for isolated residents of remote hamlets cut off by heavy snowfall as night fell. More than 130,000 homes were without electricity.
Fears for the trapped intensified after a mother and child were dragged from the ruins of a collapsed country cottage near Teramo in the Abruzzo region. Both were suffering from hypothermia and had to be helicoptered to hospital, emergency services said.
Shortly before dusk, Nello Patrizi, a farmer in Montereale, south of Amatrice, was out with his dog checking on his cows in the deep snow.
"It was an apocalyptic shock. We were petrified," the 63-year-old told AFP. "The first one was bad enough, the others seemed even stronger. You had the impression everything was collapsing, people were screaming. It was a terrible thing.
"With all the snow there was this morning, people could not get out of their houses. I thought 'all we need now is an earthquake' and here it is."
Wednesday's first shock struck at 10:25am (5.25pm Singapore time).
Monitors put its strength at between 5.1 and 5.3 magnitude. A second, 50 minutes later, was measured at 5.7 by the European Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) and 5.4 by Italy's INGV. Both monitors noted the third, minutes later, at 5.3, and one of more than 100 major aftershocks was measured at 5.1 at 2.30pm.
The Italian Red Cross said it had received reports of building collapses in unreachable hamlets near Amatrice.
The tremors were felt powerfully across the Abruzzo, Lazio and Marche regions and clearly in Rome, over 100 kilometres away.
Residents of the city of Aquila, where over 300 people died in a 2009 earthquake, rushed into the snow-covered streets in scenes of panic but the mayor said there had been no building collapses there.
In Amatrice, the belltower of the 15th Century Church of Sant'Agostino crumbled. It had been badly damaged by the first of the earthquakes which struck the mountainous centre of the country between August and October last year.
'WE DID SOMETHING BAD?'
Most of those who died in that 6.0 magnitude quake were in Amatrice, a beauty spot which was packed with holiday makers at the height of the summer season.
Two further quakes rattled the region in October, with the most powerful measuring 6.5 magnitude.
The latest quake came in the wake of 36 hours of continuous snowfall in Amatrice.
Avalanche warnings were issued across a region that has a number of ski resorts and a highest peak, Gran Sasso, at 2,912 metres.
Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi cursed his town's bad luck. "I don't know if we did something bad. That's what I have been asking since yesterday. We have got up to two metres of snow and now another earthquake. What can I say? I have no words."
Stefano Petrucci, mayor of nearby Accumoli, described the situation as "dramatic."
"The roads are unpassable because of the snow and we have hardly any trucks available to clear them, some of them are broken down. We can't fight a war with bows and arrows."
As a result of last year's quakes, many residents have been evacuated to temporary accommodation outside the earthquake-prone zone. The national civil protection agency is still housing some 10,000 people as a result of 2016's quakes.
A VULNERABLE COUNTRY
The last of them, on October 30, was the most powerful since a 6.9-magnitude one struck near Naples in southern Italy in 1980, leaving 3,000 people dead.
Italy has long been accustomed to dealing with earthquakes and the Amatrice disaster led to questions as to why so many buildings had not been upgraded to ensure they could resist tremors.
Much of the country's land mass and some of its surrounding waters are prone to seismic activity with the highest risk concentrated along its mountainous central spine.
Italy straddles the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, making it vulnerable when they move.
The worst disaster of the 20th century was in 1908 when an estimated 95,000 died in tidal waves following a quake in the sea between mainland Italy and Sicily.