(CNN) — A strong, shallow earthquake hit central Italy early Wednesday, killing at least 37 people and leaving rescuers desperately digging through the rubble to free survivors.
Many of the dead from the 6.2-magnitude earthquake were from three badly-affected villages in a mountainous area, according to CNN affiliate Rai.
The rural area is a popular vacation spot, and is especially bustling with people during the summer break.
The deaths included 10 people in the village of Pescara del Tronto, six in Accumoli and five in Amatrice, Rai reported, adding that children were among the victims.
The earthquake hit 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southeast of Norcia at 3:36 a.m., and was about 10 kilometers deep, the United States Geological Survey said. Its tremors rattled Rome — about 100 miles away.
Authorities say they cannot put a figure on the number trapped under the rubble, but the death toll is expected to rise.
Amatrice mayor: ‘The town is no more’
Amatrice, a town of about 2,000 people north of Italy’s Lazio region, is in ruins.
“The town is no more,” Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told the affiliate, appealing to rescuers: “Help us.”
Rescue workers called Amatrice residents’ cellphones, and tried to get to those who answered, the affiliate reported. If there was no answer, rescuers moved on to the next person.
The mayor of nearby Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, described desperate scenes rescuers raced against time to try to save those beneath the rubble.
“We’re digging, digging… hoping to find someone alive,” he told the affiliate.
Tommaso della Longa, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said Amatrice had been “almost completely destroyed.” “The situation is difficult at the moment.”
The priority is to find survivors in the remote, mountainous terrain, he said.
“The biggest problem at the moment (is) logistic problems because it’s in central Italy, with really small villages. Now the biggest challenge is to reach all of them,” he said.
“During the holidays there are a lot of people there. So we don’t have a precise number (of how many are affected). We can talk about ten of thousands, but we don’t know the exact number.”
Amatrice, known for its traditional all’amatriciana pasta sauce, had been gearing up to hold a festival celebrating the recipe this weekend.
‘The earth is still moving’
In the village of Saletta, a tiny settlement of about 20 residents 2 kilometers from Amatrice, CNN contributor Barbie Nadeau saw residents working to locate their neighbors amid the rubble of a collapsed two-story home.
Heavy equipment is yet to reach the isolated village. Locals were improvising with tractors and farm equipment in an attempt to shift the wreckage from the old stone homes.
Stunned locals stood on the roadside still in the pajamas they were wearing when they fled their houses in the early hours of the morning.
“The earth is still moving, we keep feeling tremor after tremor,” she said.
“You’ve got people out on the streets, crying, holding onto one another, holding their children and possessions — still in their pajamas,” Nadeau said.
Pope calls for prayers
Pope Francis called for prayers for those affected by the disaster while Italian President Sergio Mattarella said “the entire country should rally with solidarity around the affected populations.”
“At the moment we need to employ all our forces to save human lives, treat the injured and ensure the best conditions for the people displaced.”
The Italian Voluntary Blood Association made an appeal for people to donate blood to help treat those affected.
Italy is no stranger to deadly quakes. In May 2012, a pair of earthquakes killed dozens of people in northern Italy, while in April 2009, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit in the Aquila region of central Italy, killing 295. The earthquake Wednesday struck an area close to the 2009 earthquake.
‘Lasted for at least 30 seconds’.
Eleonora Romendini said she felt the earthquake in Marche region, to the east of the quake’s epicenter.
Given the powerful aftershocks, she was uncertain whether to remain in her home, but after the third powerful jolt she decided to run outside on to the street, alongside stunned neighbors.
“It was very shocking,” she said. “We were very scared.”
Charlotte Smith, coach of Elon University women’s basketball team in North Carolina, was in Rome with her players when the quake hit.
“It was pretty terrifying,” she said.
“It lasted for at least 30 seconds. The entire hotel was shaking.”
Michael Gilroy was on the second floor of a three-story building in Montepulciano when the earthquake hit. It sent them fleeing into the night.
“It felt like the bed was on rollers,” he said.
“It was initially very confusing. I’m from California and had a sense of what it may be. And we ran out to the main area and the chandelier was swaying back and forth. At that point, we knew we had to get out of the building as fast as we can.”
Gilroy, his girlfriend and other hotel guests waited outside in a clear area.
“We’re going to wait for daylight and see what happens from there,” he said.
About an hour after the earthquake, a 5.5-magnitude aftershock hit near Norcia, one of several that followed.
“At that shallowness and magnitude of 6.2, we’re going to expect lots of aftershocks for next several hours and maybe the next several days,” said Jessica Turner of the USGS.
Landslides are likely because the earthquake struck in a mountainous area, she said.
“Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are a mix of vulnerable and earthquake resistant construction,” the USGS said.
It described the buildings as un-reinforced brick with mud and concrete frame with infill construction.
The Italian Civil Protection has mobilized units to the affected areas. It plans to set up mobile medical or triage units.
It said the biggest damage appears to be in Amatrice and Accumoli in Lazio region, and the Umbria and Marche regions.