A Halloween party at a central Italy elementary school came to a tragic end today when an earthquake collapsed the building and two neighboring houses, local police reported. Thirteen children and two adults were confirmed dead, but about 30 children were pulled from the rubble alive.
[Early Friday, state television said the toll had risen to 22 -- 20 children in the school and two women in nearby homes.]
Rescue teams were working under floodlights tonight to reach more than a dozen other people believed to still be amid the wreckage in the town of San Giuliano di Puglia, said a spokeswoman for the police there, Cristina Marzano. One of the trapped people is believed to be a teacher, and the rest children.
Italian TV showed workers digging with their hands and avoiding using machinery in an effort not to provoke further crumbling of the debris that could injure trapped victims. Parents gathered behind police tape, calling out the names of missing children.
Rescue workers cheered the recovery of a child who was pulled from the rubble and taken away on a stretcher.
"As soon as he came out he called me 'Papi' like he always does," the boy's father, who did not offer his name, told RAI state television. "I immediately saw he was in good condition. He told me there are many other children still alive, a little shocked but still alive, so the hope is still there that they can save more."
Several hundred residents of San Giuliano, located 140 miles southeast of Rome, opted not to spend the night in their houses, Marzano said, for fear of seismic repercussions. The Civil Protection Service is providing them with tents, food and sleeping bags, she said.
A fireman working at the scene told the news agency ANSA that three of the children he saved had survived by hiding under their desks.
The fireman heading the rescue squad said he spoke to three people through the crushed debris of the collapsed building. "Voices came from beneath the rubble when we called out to them," he told an Italian TV news reporter. "We'll be working all night long in dangerous situations until we reach those voices and bring them out alive."
"We are in an emergency situation," said Maria D'Alessandro of the Campobasso Police Department. "We're working as carefully as we can to save as many lives as possible."
Halloween has become an increasingly popular holiday in Italy. According to some reports from the scene, older children from other schools had come to the stricken school to teach younger children about the holiday and were caught when the building collapsed.
The earthquake ripped through the Apennine mountain region, northeast of Naples, at 11:33 a.m. at a magnitude of 5.4, local police said. According to the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome, the earthquake was the strongest to hit Italy in five years.
Marzano said the floor of her office cracked and lamps fell when the temblor hit. "It went from calm to chaos in a second," she said.
Two smaller shocks followed, knocking out phone service in the area.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arrived at the scene late this evening. He later declared a state of emergency in the region.
An Italian television report said the schoolhouse was built in 1954 and had undergone repairs several times.