AMATRICE, Italy (Updated)— Rescue crews raced against time Thursday looking for survivors from the earthquake that leveled three towns in central Italy, but the death toll rose to 247 and Italy once again anguished over trying to secure its ancient communities built on seismic lands.
Dawn broke over the rolling hills of central Lazio and Le Marche regions after a night of uninterrupted search efforts. Aided by sniffer dogs, firefighters and rescue crews using their bare hands pulled chunks of cement, rock and metal apart from mounds of rubble where homes once stood searching for signs of life.
One area of focus was the Hotel Roma in Amatrice, famous for the Amatriciana bacon and tomato pasta sauce that brings food lovers to this medieval hilltop town each August for its food festival.
Amatrice's mayor had initially said 70 guests were in the crumbled hotel ahead of this weekend's festival, but rescue workers later halved that estimate after the owner said most guests managed to escape.
Firefighters' spokesman Luca Cari said that one body had been pulled out of the hotel rubble just before dawn but that the search continued there and elsewhere, even as aftershocks rattled the area a day after the magnitude 6 temblor struck at 3:36 a.m. on Wednesday.
"We're still in a phase that allows us to hope we'll find people alive," Cari said, noting that in the 2009 earthquake in nearby L'Aquila a survivor was pulled out after 72 hours.
Worst affected by the quake were the tiny towns of Amatrice and Accumoli near Rieti, 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Rome, and Pescara del Tronto, 25 kilometers (15 miles) further east.
Italy's civil protection agency reported the death toll had risen to 247 early Thursday with at least 368 others injured. Most of the dead — 190 — were in Amatrice and Accumuli and their nearby hamlets.
The civil protection agency set up tent cities around the affected towns to accommodate the homeless. In Amatrice, many elderly and children spent the night inside a local sports facility.
As the search effort continued, the soul-searching began once again as Italy confronted the effects of having the highest seismic hazard in Western Europe, some of it in its most picturesque medieval villages, and anti-seismic building codes that aren't applied to old buildings and often aren't respected when new ones are built.
"In a country where in the past 40 years there have been at least eight devastating earthquakes ... the only lesson we have learned is to save lives after the fact," columnist Sergio Rizzo wrote in Thursday's Corriere della Sera. "We are far behind in the other lessons."
Experts estimate that 70 percent of Italy's buildings aren't built to anti-seismic standards. After every major quake, proposals are made to improve, but they often languish in Italy's thick bureaucracy, funding shortages and the huge scope of trying to secure thousands of ancient towns and newer structures built before codes were passed or after the codes were in effect but in violation of them.
In recent quakes, some of these more modern buildings have been the deadliest: the university dormitory that collapsed in the 2009 L'Aquila quake, killing 11 students; the elementary school that crumbled in San Giuliano di Puglia in 2002, killing 26 children — the town's entire first-grade class. In some cases, the anti-seismic building standards have been part of the problem, including using reinforced cement for roofs that are then too heavy for weak walls when quakes strike.
Premier Matteo Renzi, visiting the quake-affected zone Wednesday, promised to rebuild "and guarantee a reconstruction that will allow residents to live in these communities, to relaunch these beautiful towns that have a wonderful past that will never end."
While the government is already looking ahead to reconstruction, rescue workers on the ground still had days and weeks of work ahead of them. In hard-hit Pescara del Tronto, firefighter Franco Mantovan said early Thursday that crews knew of three residents still under the rubble, but in a hard-to-reach area.
In the evening there, about 17 hours after the quake struck, firefighters pulled a 10-year-old girl alive from a crumbled home.
"You can hear something under here. Quiet, quiet," one rescue worker said, before soon urging her on: "Come on, Giulia, come on, Giulia."
Cheers broke out when she was pulled out.
But there were wails when bodies emerged.
"Unfortunately, 90 percent we pull out are dead, but some make it, that's why we are here," said Christian Bianchetti, a volunteer from Rieti who was working in devastated Amatrice.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported the quake's magnitude was 6.2, while the Italian geological service put it at 6 and the European Mediterranean Seismological Center at 6.1. The quake had a shallow depth of between four and 10 kilometers, the agencies said. Generally, shallow earthquakes pack a bigger punch and tend to be more damaging than deeper quakes.
"The Apennine mountains in central Italy have the highest seismic hazard in Western Europe and earthquakes of this magnitude are common," noted Richard Walters, a lecturer in Earth sciences at Durham University in Britain.
The devastation harked back to the 2009 quake that killed more than 300 people in and around L'Aquila, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of the latest quake. The town, which still hasn't fully recovered, sent emergency teams Wednesday to help with the rescue and set up tent camps for residents unwilling to stay indoors because of aftershocks.
"I don't know what to say. We are living this immense tragedy," said a tearful Rev. Savino D'Amelio, a parish priest in Amatrice. "We are only hoping there will be the least number of victims possible and that we all have the courage to move on."
Another hard-hit town was Pescara del Tronto, in the Le Marche region, where the main road was covered in debris.
Residents were digging their neighbors out by hand before emergency crews arrived. Aerial photos taken by regional firefighters showed the town essentially flattened and under a thick gray coat of dust; Italy requested EU satellite images of the whole area to get the scope of the damage.
"There are broken liquor bottles all over the place," said Gino Petrucci, owner of a bar in nearby Arquata Del Tronto where he was beginning the long cleanup.
One rescue was particularly delicate as a ranger in Capodacqua, in the Marche province of Ascoli Piceno, diplomatically tried to keep an 80-year-old woman calm as she begged to get to a toilet, even though she was trapped in the rubble.
"Listen, I know it's not nice to say but if you need to pee you just do it," he said. "Now I move away a little bit and you do pee, please."
The mayor of Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, said a family of four had died there, one of the few young families who had decided to stay in the area. He wept as he noted that the tiny hamlet of 700 swells to 2,000 in the summer months, and that he feared for the future of the town.
"I hope they don't forget us," he told Sky TG24.
President Barack Obama, speaking by telephone to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, said the U.S. sent its thoughts and prayers to the quake victims and saluted the "quick action" by first responders, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
A 1997 quake killed a dozen people in central Italy and severely damaged one of the jewels of Umbria, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, filled with Giotto frescoes. The Franciscan friars who are the custodians of the basilica reported no immediate damage from Wednesday's temblor.
Pope Francis skipped his traditional catechism for his Wednesday general audience and instead invited the thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter's Square to recite the rosary with him. He also sent a six-man squad from the Vatican's fire department to help with the rescue. (AP)