A strong earthquake shook large parts of northern Italy on early Sunday morning, killing at least five people and causing scores of buildings to collapse in nearby towns, officials and witnesses said. The death toll is expected to rise.
The 5.9-magnitude earthquake at 04:03 a.m. local time (0203 GMT) was centered about 7.5 kilometers (4.6 miles) northwest of Finale Emilia, a town in the northern province of Modena. It struck about 6.3 kilometers (3.9 miles) deep, making it a shallow earthquake, according to the country's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV).
The powerful tremor was felt across large parts of northern Italy, as far west as Liguria near France and the Friuli region bordering Slovenia, prompting thousands of terrified residents to flee their homes. It was one of the strongest quakes to hit the region in recent years, seismologists said.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS), which measured the strength of the quake at 6.0 on the Richter scale, estimated that some 62,000 people near the epicenter may have felt 'very strong' shaking. Another 1.4 million people may have felt moderate to strong shaking, and as many as 17.5 million others could have perceived weak to light shaking.
A spokesperson for Italy's Civil Protection Department said at least five people were killed in the province of Ferrara, although Italian media reports said the unofficial death toll was at least six. The department said emergency medical services had treated around 50 people in the provinces of Ferrara and Modena, but no details were released about their conditions.
"Numerous historic buildings and monuments, in particular churches and castles, have been damaged by the earthquake in many municipalities," the spokesperson said, adding that surveys were being conducted to assess the extend of the damage in the worst-affected area. There was no serious damage to power lines and telecommunication networks, and police have started looting patrols to monitor unattended buildings.
Sunday's earthquake is the deadliest and strongest to hit Italy since a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the central region of the country in April 2009, killing at least 308 people and injuring more than 1,500 others. It was the country's worst earthquake since a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in November 1980, killing nearly 3,000 people.