Powerful quake shakes Italy, topples Benedictine cathedral

The Church of San Francesco is covered with dust and rubble, in Norcia, central Italy, after an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.6 struck Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. A powerful earthquake rocked the same area of central and southern Italy hit by quake in August and a pair of aftershocks last week, sending already quake-damaged buildings crumbling after a week of temblors that have left thousands homeless. (Matteo Guidelli/ANSA via AP)

The Church of San Francesco is covered with dust and rubble, in Norcia, central Italy, after an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.6 struck Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. A powerful earthquake rocked the same area of central and southern Italy hit by quake in August and a pair of aftershocks last week, sending already quake-damaged buildings crumbling after a week of temblors that have left thousands homeless. (Matteo Guidelli/ANSA via AP)

NORCIA, Italy (AP) — Another powerful earthquake shook Italy on Sunday, sending panicked people running into piazzas, raining boulders onto highways and toppling a Benedictine cathedral and other historic edifices that had withstood several recent quakes. There were no immediate reports of deaths.

With a preliminary magnitude of 6.6, it was the strongest earthquake to strike the country in nearly 36 years. People throughout the mountainous region northeast of Rome were still on edge after a pair of jolts last week and an August quake that killed nearly 300.

That there were no reports of fatalities was largely due to the fact that thousands had left their homes for shelters and hotels after the earlier temblors, and that large swaths of inhabited areas had been closed for safety reasons.

Despite the new collapses, the head of the civil protection agency, Fabrizio Curcio, said there was no indication that anyone was missing or buried under rubble. Earlier, three people were extracted from rubble in Tolentino.

“These earthquakes are bringing all of central Italy to its knees,” Tolentino Mayor Giuseppe Pezzanesi said.

Premier Matteo Renzi pledged that wrecked homes, churches and businesses would rise again, saying they were part of Italy’s national identity. The government last week earmarked 40 million euros for rebuilding.

“We will rebuild everything,” Renzi said. “We are dealing with marvelous territories, territories of beauty.”

Residents already rattled by a constant trembling of the earth rushed into the streets after being roused from bed by the 7:40 a.m. quake. It was felt as far north as Salzburg, Austria, and all the way down the Italian peninsula to the Puglia region, the heel of the boot.

“It is since 1980 that we have had to deal with an earthquake of this magnitude,” Curcio said, referring to a 6.9-magnitude quake near Naples that killed some 3,000 people in November 1980.

Some 20 people suffered minor injuries. Authorities responded with helicopters to help the injured and monitor collapses, as many roads were blocked by landslides.

Some 3,600 people had already been relocated, many to the coast, following last week’s quake, and Curcio said more would follow. People who stayed behind were mostly sleeping in campers or other vehicles, out of harm’s way.

Closest to the epicenter was the ancient city of Norcia, famed for its Benedictine monastery and for the birthplace of St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. Witnesses said the 14th century St. Benedict Cathedral collapsed in the quake, with only the facade still standing.

“It’s as if the whole city fell down,” Norcia City Assessor Giuseppina Perla told the ANSA news agency. The city’s ancient walls sustained damage, as did another famous Norcia church, St. Mary Argentea, known for its 15th century frescoes.

Italy’s deadliest quake in recent history remains the 1908 Messina quake that destroyed the Sicilian city and killed tens of thousands of people.