In the wake of a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck about 85 miles east of Rome early this morning, Pope Francis cancelled his general audience and instead used the time to pray for the victims of the disaster.
Reuters is reporting on the quake which hit central Italy around 3:30 a.m. when most residents were asleep in their beds. The areas hardest hit by the shallow quake were the picturesque mountainous town of Accumoli and Amatrice where at least 38 people are reportedly dead and thousands have been left homeless.
In Accumoli, a family of four, including two children aged eight months and nine years, were killed when their home collapsed on top of them. As rescue workers carried away the body of the infant, the children’s grandmother cried out to God: “He took them all at once.”
Giancarlo, a resident of Amatrice, told Reuters: “It’s all young people here, it’s holiday season, the town festival was to have been held the day after tomorrow so lots of people came for that. It’s terrible, I’m 65-years-old and I have never experienced anything like this, small tremors, yes, but nothing this big. This is a catastrophe,” he said.
Indeed, aerial photographs show that most of the town, which was voted just last year as one of Italy’s most beautiful historic towns, was all but wiped off the map.
Emergency crews are now racing to rescue residents who can be heard moaning inside the rubble as rescue workers scramble to remove the heavy rubble under which they are buried.
“Three quarters of the town is not there anymore,” said Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi to state broadcaster RAI. “The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there.”
In a televised address to the nation, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi reassured the citizenry. “No one will be left alone, no family, no community, no neighborhood. We must get down to work … to restore hope to this area which has been so badly hit.”
Reuters reports that the earthquake caused damage in three regions – Umbria, Lazio and Marche – and was felt as far away as the southern Italian port city of Naples, including Rome and the Vatican.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quake measured 6.2 magnitude and struck near the Umbrian city of Norcia. The damage was so severe because the epicenter was shallow, occurring at just four kilometers beneath the surface.
Residents as far away as Rome and Vatican City were woken by the tremors which are said to have rattled furniture and set off car alarms throughout most of central Italy.
Thus far, there have been 60 aftershocks with the strongest registering at 5.5.
In the wake of the disaster, Pope Francis postponed his prepared catechesis at today’s General Audience and instead led the faithful gathered in St Peter’s Square in the recitation of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary.
“I had prepared the catechesis for today, as for all Wednesdays during this year of mercy, focusing on the closeness of Jesus. However on hearing of the news of the earthquake that has struck central Italy, and which has devastated entire areas and left many wounded, I cannot fail to express my heartfelt sorrow and spiritual closeness to all those present in the zones afflicted,” the Pope announced.
He expressed his condolences to those who lost loved ones and offered his spiritual support to those who are anxious and afraid.
“Hearing the mayor of Amatrice say that the town no longer exists, and learning that there are children among the dead, I am deeply saddened,” he continued. “For this reason, I want to assure all the people of Accumuli, Amatrice, the Diocese of Rieti, Ascoli Piceno, and all the people of Lazio, Umbria, and Le Marche, of the prayers and close solidarity of the entire Church, who in these moments extends her merciful love, as well as the concern of all of us here in the Piazza.”
After thanking rescue personnel and volunteers for their efforts in the stricken region, he asked everyone to join him in praying to Jesus, “Who is always moved by compassion before the reality of human suffering, that He may console the broken hearted, and through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, bring them peace. With Jesus let our hearts be moved with compassion.”
He concluded: “So we will postpone, then, this week’s catechesis until next Wednesday, and I invite you to pray with me a part of the holy Rosary, the sorrowful mysteries.”
Let us join our Holy Father in prayer for the victims of this disaster.